Mar 16, 2018

What's in a word? Why I don't care and neither should you

Last night I attended an excellent panel discussion organised by the redoubtable Woman’s Place UK, on the subject of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow for legal sex changes to be certified by the state on the basis of self-certification or, also known as self-declaration. Self-certification is being demanded by (some) transgender rights organisations as a replacement for the current system of medical diagnosis and social transition followed by approval by a special government panel. I oppose these changes, but will not rehash my objections to them here. The WAPOW submission to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Inquiry is still a relevant and useful resource to understand some of these objections.

The atmosphere in Birmingham last night was collegiate, inclusive, and for the most part optimistic, which made me really happy. There was, however, disagreement, not among the panel funnily enough, but between the panel and the audience, about a point made by the first speaker, Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, about the importance – or as you shall see, lack thereof – of the focus on the term “woman” and the question of who is and is not a “real” woman. This is a question that exercises both feminists and trans thinkers, and views range from the patently circular “a woman is anyone who says they are a woman, therefore anyone who says they are a woman is a real woman” to the more intuitively compelling but nevertheless unsatisfactory “a woman is an adult human female and an adult human female only”. I understand from reports on social media and from friends who attended that a feminist event held the previous night in Parliament to discuss similar issues took the latter claim very seriously, and that strong points were made in support of the position that we must never relinquish our identity to activists seeking to colonise the language of womanhood. It’s a very live topic, in other words.

I was one of what seemed like a minority in the room to agree with Rebecca that the preoccupation with this issue of terminology is a tactical mistake; furthermore I believe that is a political irrelevance. Given that this is such an important issue for many of my sisters, I thought I ought to set out my arguments in support of this view. To wit, my conviction rests on two pillars:


The critical underlying contention of anti-feminist and anti-woman thinking is not that women aren’t really female or biology is not a thing or that penis can be non-male: it is that women do not have a coherent existence as a political class. This contention is age old and absolutely not an innovation of the trans debate. As Gerda Lerner points out in her seminal The Creation of Patriarchy, one of the main deprivations inflicted upon women by patriarchy is the denial of history: not only is the telling of human history monopolised by men and the cast of characters largely male, but women are seen as not having any intergenerational continuity that could be woven together into a history in the first place. We are cast as material, fleshy, and of the here and now. The illusion of the “naturalness” of the reproductive function to which women have been forcibly limited is maintained, among other things, by the insistence on the fact that there is no shared womanity that is intergenerational, heritable, collective and narrative.

A group without a shared history has no shared identity, and no ability to organise as a class. The denial of history serves a deprivation of politics: it shrinks women’s concerns to the personal, the domestic and the individual. There is a reason why two concepts were keystones of the 1960’s women liberation movement: “the personal is political” and “women are a sex class”. Those women understood extremely well that the first and most important obstacle to overcome when fighting for our rights and liberation is the one that says there is no “we” and therefore no “our”. What had been cast as the narrow personal concerns of atomised individuals is in fact a large scale political injustice against a recognisable class. The fact that this insight was both contested and incompletely inherited by future generations of activists is substantially responsible for the parlous state we now find ourselves in, whereby self-styled "feminist" men see our rights and recognition of our humanity as personal favours they can bestow upon individual women rather than a legitimate political demand of a class that makes up half the human race.

Even before the most recent bout of contestation of language and definition we were, I believe, distracted from the critical project of revitalising and strengthening the legitimacy of women as a political constituency with diverse but interlinked demands and needs: safety, dignity, personhood. Now that we are taking this already-diminished momentum into contestation of language, we have fewer resources still to spend on policy-driven demands such as universal childcare, proper operation of the justice system, recognition and support of unpaid labour, the abolition of the sex trade, equal participation in reproductive effort as far as possible by men and so forth. When we are fighting about what we are called, or about what another group is allowed to call itself, our eyes are off the ball and we risk missing (and I think have been overlooking) the danger of having not the descriptive term, but the legitimacy of that critical starting point, the “we”, kicked out from under us. It doesn't matter what anyone calls us; what matters is that we don't lose sight of the fact that there is an "us".


On every step on the ladder of escalating demands from people purporting to represent all trans individuals, there has been an intense contestation about language. It is almost 5 years since I first wrote something against using the term “cis”, and though I still believe it is a degrading and victim blaming insult to women, I think that I was blind at the time to the fact that objecting to it is a distraction activity from the broader threat. “Cis” is now completely mainstream; it’s made it into the style guides of the Guardian and the New Yorker, into government guidelines and court judgements, into handbooks for clinicians and educators. The ship has sailed. But the armada didn’t go home: the next battleground that opened up was about the legitimacy of the word “female” (I am aware that there were additional skirmishes along the way, but do not intend a full history of the language wars here).

Almost none of us had encountered the argument “binary biology is outdated” or “humans have more than one sex, deal with it” before about 2015. It just wasn’t a widespread thing. But when the battle over “cis” was won, from the point of view of certain people whose priority is to encroach upon the political cohesion and sense of solidarity of women, the war continued. Us radfems tried every trick in the book to avoid falling into the holes dug for us when describing women’s bodies: we used “natal women”, then “females”, then “biological females”. Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum usage shifted from “cis women” to “non-men” to “uterus-bearers” and “lactators”. The quicksand of allowable terminology never seemed to have a bottom.

Well, I’m calling it: there is no end game to this arms race. The point of it is not to correct or perfect the English language into some recognised ideal of inclusivity and intersectionality, the point of it is to waste our time and energies on an ever-escalating one-up tournament in which every time we think we’ve found a new word that, will, at last, get us left alone, we get attacked again and have to start over. Some feminists responded to this insight by planting their flag on the word “woman” and not budging: simply refusing to acknowledge any changes in what is considered socially legitimate language, and insisting on the objective truth of the language we used in earlier decades.

I completely understand this approach, and am very sympathetic to it. It is natural to think that, regardless of where one is in a campaign, the original frontier is the one we should never, ever have retreated from. But there’s a practical problem in trying to live by this dictum, because if the enemy is outside the walls of your city, it’s pretty tricky to somehow sneak out and go back to defending the border of your province or country; it’s just not where the war is, and you’ll be fighting shadows. 

More importantly to me, however, is the fact that this particularly idiotic war is not of our choosing. I see us being like WWI soldiers, dying in the trenches for the sake of a few yards of muddy flatland neither side is going to gain anything by possessing. I say (and this of course is where the land war analogy breaks down irreparably, and a good thing too): let them have the bloody Somme. Let’s just walk away from this battlefield we didn’t chose and go back to working on what we need to be working on: thinking and writing about women, our social and medical needs, our subjective experience, our history; lobbying governments, cities, schools, universities and hospitals to institute and enforce policies that are needed to make the material conditions of our lives better; and being in sisterhood with each other across our differences and disagreements. This war was designed from the start to be unwinnable by either side, because its ultimate purpose is not to gain ground but to bog women down in one place to prevent them from attacking more strategic positions.

You will notice, I hope, that such a tactical retreat would by no means impede or slow down the fight against, to pick a current example, the inclusion of self-declaration in any reform of the GRA or against the removal of the single-sex services exemption in the 2010 Equality Act. The vital work of protecting legislation which, as Debbie Hayton convincingly argued last night, is also important for the safety and acceptance of trans people, does not depend on us all agreeing on the terminology we like best, or on policing other people’s use of terminology to describe themselves, however silly or even offensive we find those uses to be.


“Language creates reality” is the natural terrain of postmodernists (#NotAllPostmodernists), queer theorists and dilettantes too idle to reform anything other than what words other people get to use on Twitter. It’s not where radical feminist should be making some desperate last stand. It would make me very sad to see us not manage to move past this business of “who is and isn’t a real woman whatever the hell that even means” to continue our work of creating a world in which the patently real, objectively wonderful, commonsensically recognisable political class Women can flourish and thrive.

Feb 15, 2017

How do they know who to kill?

A video is doing the rounds, in which a white person with a lifetime of male socialisation behind them – in other words, someone at the apex of human privilege –  gives great fanfare to the banal observation that science is an activity rather than a phenomenon and that classification is the imposition of more-or-less imperfect linguistic concepts on a more-or-less well understood underlying physical reality. On the basis of this stoned undergrad level of profundity, this person now exhorts us to lay aside our childish attachment to the classifications “male” and “female” and admit that, given that sex is a “social construct”, then it’s just frankly not real, and our attachment to those categories is an old fashioned piece of bigotry that oppresses the minority who wish it to be known that their sex tracks their gender.

There are several rejoinders that it is immediately tempting to make to this muddle-headed claim. For example, one could pat the young person on the head and reassure them that very few people today are such through-going Platonists that they go about their days imagining that our language described immutable categories based on underlying metaphysical Truth. Or one could remind them that money is a social construct, too, but claiming that makes it unreal wouldn’t help you at the till in the supermarket, haha. Or that “trans” come from “transition”, and if there is no sex with which the gender of the person is misaligned, then in what sense are they transitioning, and from what to what? And of course there's the perennial problem that saying "I don't judge gender by physique" is to feminism what "I don't see colour" is to racism (the latter is also based, by the way, on the sound observation that race has no underlying biological basis, first made to delegitimise so called "scientific" racism).

Good, if well worn arguments, but none of them is the one I want to make today. Here is why I reject, with the greatest level of rhetorical emphasis words can lend me, the self-serving pretence that sex is a meaningless category, socially, medically or (especially) politically:

In her speech at the Washington Women’s Match in January, Gloria Steinem remarked that for the first time in history, there are now fewer women than men in the world. I haven’t dug into the data, but it seems like a reasonable extrapolation from a trend first analysed by Amrtya Sen in the 1990’s. Back then Sen estimated that there was at least one hundred million women missing from the world – aborted before birth, killed in infancy, or dead through differential parental investment in food and medical care. There is no reason to suppose that number has not continued to grow in the intervening decades. While Steinem’s point went very much uncommented on, it speaks to an absolutely monumental shift in human demography. Men’s greater propensity to violence through war, as well as the greater spontaneous miscarriage rate of mal fetuses and the greater vulnerability of male neonates to disease, has always kept th ebalance of male to female people in the world more or less even (despite the fact that more male embryos are conceived than female ones). In the present day, a combination of economic and medical progress, coupled with absolutely no meaningful progress in the eradication of woman-hating, is tipping that balance: turning women into a minority as well as a disadvantaged group. The consequences of this are hard to predict, and probably don't belojng in this post; but there is no question that they will be extraordinary.

It seems to be almost too obvious to need pointing out that dowry is a social construct; son preference is a social construct; sex-selective abortion is a social construct; and patriarchy as a whole is a social construct, Goddess help us. But anyone who can sit at the tippy-top of human safety and luxury, the historical 0.1% of all humans since the pleystocene, and lecture others that medical classification is actual violence, is just going to shrug their shoulders and say that people shouldn’t do bad things anyway, so it's not their problem. Fine.

However. Here’s what I think anyone pushing the “sex is a social construct and therefore it is up to me to decide if my reproductive organs are male or female” has an absolute moral duty to account for: if sex is not a “real” and meaningful political or economic category, on what basis did the parents of the hundreds of millions of women and girls lost to femicide know who to kill? This is not state mandated, low-resolution social engineering: each individual family, each individual father, and sometimes mother, has made a decision to abort this baby, but not that baby. Each individual village midwife or grandmother or mother in law in a village somewhere has decided to take this child and leave them by the side of the road to die, but not that child. These people are not scientists and they are certainly not feminists. They didn’t get their decisions out of a Janice Raymond book, so give me a fucking break, use your educated-beyond-its-capability brain for a second and think about it: if sex doesn’t really exist, how do they know who to kill?

The organised killing of girl children is the greatest act of murder in the history of humanity. No one has ever suffered more deliberate elimination than the female neonate; not Jews, not soldiers in the WWI trenches, nobody. It’s not genocide, because it is not an organised crime aimed at eliminating a particular national group in order that a collective “Us” should fare better. In some ways it’s worse than genocide, because each individual killing is intimate, private, a unique rejection: I, me this real person in the world, do not wish you, a potential or existing individual, to exist. The hatred is tiny in each case, maybe not even a hatred at all, just a small preference, a little nudge in a particular direction. And it has a basis. Is that basis justified? Of course not. Is that basis immutable, or always diagnosed correctly at first? Possibly, given the state of modern medicine, not. But does that basis exist? Yes, yes it does. Because none of these killings are random.

Let’s say we live in some future world in which “gender identity” has been identified as a real determining factor in physical and psychological development, instead of the politically instrumentalised subjective feeling we have every reason to believe it to be today. Imagine that in that world it is possible to measure the gender identity of an embryo in utero, like it is possible to examine their physical characteristics with ultrasound today. Do the people who parrot the “sex is a social construct” cliché as if it were some clinching “gotcha!” believe that in that world, those who practice femicide today would agree to base their candidates for selective abortion or infanticide on that reading, rather than the characteristics of the body? Never mind whether that would make the mass murder OK. Just answer: do you think the same people who kill girl children today will agree to switch to killing only girl-identified children instead?

It's a rhetorical question. Nobody who is sufficiently invested in sex discrimination and the devaluing of women to kill babies gives a shit how you identify.

The obscenity of sitting on top of the technological, economic and medical heap and lecturing those below that a thing that is responsible for the deaths of literal hundreds of millions of women and girls in our world today should no longer be counted as a thing that exists because you’re clever enough to have read the words “social construct” in some A Level paper is beyond my ability to describe in words. I have nothing but contempt for the person who recorded this video and for the self-styled “progressive” Everyday Feminism team who are providing it with a platform. Brushing aside the most lethal characteristic any human could ever, and can ever possess in order to score some woke cookies off the back of a few well-meaning white women in rich countries is not feminist. Frankly, it’s not even really human.

Nov 4, 2016

"TERF" was always going to go mainstream

So, Glamour went there. It printed a piece in which women are called "TERF".

It was inevitable that the word "TERF" will become mainstream. The feminists slammed with this "description" are the most unforgivable of activists: women who stand for women, as women, and women only. Women wihout a modifier, women as members of no class other than their own, women as completely divorced from any political association with men.

To cover its own profound and endemic misogyny, the Left allows certain kind of feminist activity - anti-racist, anti-homophobic - to flourish, so long as the gains from that activity are likely to benefit some men, too. And of course anything that might benefit some men in practice ends up benefiting mostly men - advantage flows up the power gradient, that's not news to anyone.

Radical feminism doesn't operate within that narrowly permitted sphere. It kicks at the traces: it says no, women as women and women only and with no relationship (mother, sister, daughter) or affiliation (black, gay, poor) with men of any kind we are worthy of political consideration, we have interests, we have rights, we have power, we have thoughts and talents and capabilities and we. Are. Oppressed. As women.

That a "women's" magazine (in reality, a publication whose aim and purpose is to inform the subordinate class about the terms on which its subordination is to be carried out) should be among the first mainstream media organs to legitimise a word that is used as a cover for lurid fantasies about inflicting snuff-like violence on these insubordinate, obstinate, monstrous women who continue to insist that "women" means something and that women matter, is not surprising. It's not even ironic. It's completely predictable.

Women's magazines exist to tell us what we are not allowed to be. Fat. Hairy. Ugly. Old. Ambitious. That a women's magazine should take it upon itself to thickly hint that one additional thing we are not allowed to be is partisans for our own political class - that we are not, in fact, allowed to insist that we are members of a political class that really exists and has a right to organise and agitate on its own behalf - is one hundred percent in accordance with the mission statement of such a publication. In a world in which it has become socially gauche to tell women outright that feminism will be stigmatised and punished, a workaround has been found: narrow the definition of permissible feminism down such as to exclude almost all serious political activity, then call women who don't conform names.

Oh but it's not a slur, says the (soon to be rather beleaguered I think) intern in charge of Glamour's Twitter account. It's a description. Well, "fat" is a description too. "Ugly" is a description. "Manhater" is a description. "Spinster" is a description. "Nasty woman", of course, is a mere description. I don't know quite how to break it to people whose jobs, ostensibly, are to choose and use words, but: how you choose to describe someone matters. And you've chosen to describe women in the oldest, hoariest way possible: as hateful harridans, eldrich witches whose inattention to men and their needs makes them a legitimate target for both symbolic and actual violence.

Jan 28, 2016

The Olympics, Maria Miller, and sleeping under bridges

Let me just say at the outset: I don't really care about sports all that much. I don't watch it, much less play it. The only reason I'm even talking about it now is because it's a hugely important aspect of modern culture, in terms of both the passion that individual people invest in it and the multi-billion part it plays in the global economy. But as a person, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I didn't even watch the Olympics when they were in he UK, meaning in my timezone and not at some outlandish hour in the middle of the night, so. Having cleared up any confusion about my Olympic aspirations, let's have a look at what equality in sports looks like for trans men and trans women. 

The International Olympic Committee recently released the guidelines from its November "Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism", in which it asserts a commitment to "ensure insofar as possible that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition". This is a pretty decent goal in and of itself, taken in isolation. It's not clear to me why the commission is especially concerned with trans athletes; even at the largest estimates, they constitute a tiny proportion of the population. The crossover between people who are trans and people who are good enough to try for the Olympic games must be infinitesimal indeed; but OK, it's the trendy minority right now, and the Caster Semenya case is still ringing in everyone's ears, so fair enough.

Having said all that, here are the guidelines that the Commission recommends for trans athletes to be allowed to enter competition under their declared gender:
  1. Those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction.
  2. Those who transition from male to female are eligible to compete in the female category under the following conditions:
  • The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.
  • The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).
  • The athlete's total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.
  • Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.
In short, trans men (who were born female) face virtually no restrictions on entering events as men; they get in practically on their own say-so. Trans women (born male) also get to compete in events on their own say-so, but there are some extra rules put in place to prevent mischievous declarations of womanhood, presumably to avoid cheating. [Side note: if you think there is no cheating at that level of sport I have two words for you: Lance Armstrong]

If one is an equality-minded person who is not an expert in Olympic history, this ought to give one pause: why, one might ask, do trans women come under all of this extra suspicion? How is it fair to put additional burdens on trans women compared to trans men? Isn't this, when all is said and done, sexist? Or worse - isn't the Commission tacitly accusing trans women as a group of being especially mendacious? 

These sorts of questions are often levelled, mostly in the form of accusations, at feminists (or rather "purported" feminists, according to Maria Miller) who seek to have extra clarity and regulation around access for trans women to other previously female-only institutions, mostly services such as rape crisis centres, women's shelters, women's prisons and public changing rooms. The fact that little attention tends to be paid to trans men in what is sometimes derisively called "the toilet wars" is often offered as evidence of simple bigotry on the part of the people (nearly all of them women) who raise these concerns rather than allowing themselves to fall into complacent progressivism.

Lots and lots has already been written about the fact that allowing pre-op trans women to compete in women's Olympic events is a bad and unfair idea. Lots and lots. But if I'm honest, I'm a bit baffled by the outrage about this specific new provision. I mean, you don't shot putt with your willy, do you? It doesn't seem super relevant to me what you've got in your pants during the 100 meters race or whatever. Because the tricky thing here is not the legal gender (as recognised - or not - by the bewilderingly diverse set of countries who participate in the Games) or genitals of the various participants, but other things like stride, strength and reach that are set at puberty and don't recall change much with testosterone levels and the like. On that score, trans women have had an advantage over females for donkey's years, and this new concession is just a piece of PR on behalf on the IOC.

In any case, if testosterone is such a game changer in athletics, then why did the IOC set the maximum level of the hormone at roughly three times as high as naturally occurs in the female population? Does that mean that female athletes can now take the (banned) hormone as a supplement to enhance their performance in line with their trans rivals, and be exempt from the doping rules? Yeah, right. I didn't think so.

I could go on at some length about bone density, grip strength and all that sort of thing, but I'm not a physiologist and to be honest that sort of stuff bores me, so here's a picture instead of a thousand words: see if you can guess which, among the two groups of sportspeople below, are the trans individuals:


What we have here with this new and trendy IOC guidance is what Anatole France satirically alluded to with the quip that "in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." In other words, absolute equality imposed on an unequal situation, which ensures that the people who stand to lose out are those already most disadvantaged. That is also what Maria Miller, in the asinine report that she's been defending with such po-faced self righteousness, is trying to achieve: gain a reputation for being an advocate for equality by taking away every provision that is seen as either especially onerous (GRC process) or especially necessary (the so called spousal 'veto') and letting everyone play on a level playing field. Only it's kind of funny that the equalising provisions always seem to be getting rid of things that one particular group dislikes, and that another particular group is very defensive of. I wonder what those two groups might be called! And whether they share any other biological, social, economic and political characteristics!

The thing is, the playing field is not level. It's never been level, and short of something like Aamer Rahma's definition of Reverse Racism, it's not going to wake up being level anytime soon. It's easy to hide hostility to women's humanity behind this cant of equal treatment, in which we treat everyone equally by strenuously resisting any changes to an unequal status quo. Keith Vaz was at it when he recommended that (overwhelmingly male) rape suspects be granted the same anonymity as (overwhelmingly - I know, who'd have thunk it! - female) rape victims. A million neck-beard fedoras are at it when they bemoan the fact that feminists don't really believe in equality or they'd be allowed to punch women. Everyone who's ever objected to women-only shortlists, boardroom quotas, scholarships for women and BME students, US-style affirmative action and so on is at it. It's the very very cosiest of perches: you're an upstanding member of a liberal society who just hates inequality! The fact that you hate the kind of "inequality" that might take the shine off your own silver spoon is, well, let's just not get into that. Look! Over there! Feminists are being hateful!

The funny thing with this whole hoo-ha of course is that sport is the very last thing that's about equality. Sporting competitions of all kinds are a celebration of extraordinary, rare, and unequally distributed talent (as well as tenacity, perseverance, and luck). Not that this stops the IOC from zealously enforcing equality as much as possible in areas other than gender: everything from drugs to special swimsuits to Oscar Pistorius's blades has been banned by the IOC before now, in an attempt to make competition as fair as possible. When there's a serious chance that male athletes might come up against a competitor who is using some technology or ability they've had no access to, it's all canvassed in deadly earnest. But when it's only a bunch of girls coming up against people half again their height, body mass and testosterone level? Oh, c'mmon. Don't you care about equality?

Jan 6, 2016

What the Cologne mass sexual assault tells us about culture - our own

One of the only times I physically intervened between a man and the woman he was assaulting was in Munich. A young man had made a remark to  a young woman passing him; when she ignored him, he grabbed her arm; when she jerked her arm away, he grabbed her handbag, talking at her all the while; by this point she was more begging than demanding to be released, more terrified than angry. That was when I got between then and pushed him away - he let go more out of surprise than because I was anything like his physical match, and the girl took the opportunity to scurry away.

The reason that I have no illusions of having actually physically bested this man was that he was a strapping Teutonic specimen of clear brow, blond hair, and a goot 6 feet of hulking entitlement. He was not "of Middle Eastern or Arab origin", as the hundreds of men who appear to have gone out on an organised orgy of assault and harrassement in Cologne on New Years Eve are described as being. He was not an immigrant "unfamiliar" with the normas of behaviour expected of men in German culture. If anything he was all too familiear with them, and rightly confident that those norms are such that no passer by of German nationality would think to object to his manhandling a pleading woman outside a crowded McDonald's in Munich's heaving central train station.

He was right of course - it took the random presence of a bossy feminist from the same Middle east that is supposed to harbour so many rampant sexists to get between him and German culture. He wasn't the only man I saw behaving in ways that I consider blatantly illegal. Myself and my partner had arrived at the central train station late one night during Oktoberfest, and had a bit of a wait until the departure of the next train in our journey. We were both utterly shocked by what we saw, and left the city with one firm resolution: never to visit it during a public holiday. Gangs of young men (why do they always travel in packs?) were jeering at young women, grabbing at them, blocking their retreats or escapes. The station was jam packed and well lit, with police, stations staff and staff from the shops and businesses (all open) everywhere. In two hours of sitting and watching this "world" go by, we saw no one make any sign that this behaviour looked aberrant to them.

As Musa Okwonga writes in the New Statesman, there is no point getting into an argument about whether the 500-1,000 men assaulting women in Cologne were Muslims. Racist gonna racist, and pointing out to people who go on about Rotherham that similar gangs of rapists were white, and that many other cases of white men abusing children en masse have been investigated, won't change their minds. What's important to understand though is not that immigrant men behave in these ways because they don't understand the cultures in which they have found themselves: they behave in those ways precisely because they do. Those men in Cologne and elsewhere in Germany, assuming they really were all "foreign", have understood perfectly well that they find themselves in a country where alcohol and pubic revelry equal a free-for-all on women's bodies, which in any case can be legally bought in mega-brothels all across the country. There were extra police officers deployed in the city on NYE (a female police officer was hreself reportedly assaulted). There were just as many German men getting off those trains as women. Where were they? Why did their presence not make it seem unsafe or at least impolitic to behave in ways that every adult, regardless of country of origin, knows perfectly well is illegal and indecent?

It is a telling fact that, when put on the spot by a journalist, the best advice the (woman) mayor of Cologne could give to women in the city was to "keep men at arm's length". Her knee-jerk instinct to place the responsibility of stopping crime against women on women themselves speaks volumes about the fact that neither she nor the German public consider sexual assault the responsibility of the men who overwhelmingly perpetrate it. Whatever cant we hear now from German racists (and their rhetorical opponents) about so-called German culture and its respect for women, what this incident makes plain above all else is that this culture is only shared by half the population of the country. And that makes it no kind of national culture at all - no more than the culture of any other European state that winks at street harassment, fails to prosecute rape properly, fails to protect children from predation, and allows men to legally exploit women for sexual access for money.

At a time when 60% of respondents believe that police awareness campaigns targeting female victims are "sexist", it's time we admitted that the real fear of Muslim and African refugees is not the culture they bring with them, but what they expose about our own cultures right here in the comfortable, rich Global North.

Jun 13, 2015


This evening I’ve been thinking about Jen. I met her when we were both 17, as part of a Roots program – a summer trip to Israel for US-based Jewish kids, cross-sponsored by their parents and some Jewish agency or other. I liked Jen, though we weren’t close; she was a smiling, friendly girl, petite and pretty, and the kind of hairless, fair skinned white-blonde you rarely see in Israel. Through the haze of decades, I only have one clear memory of talking to her. We were discussing how everyone had got on the program, and Jen told us that her stepdad is Jewish, and because he raised her and she loved him, she considered herself Jewish too, hence the desire to connect to her ‘roots’. I remember thinking – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I said it, too, I wasn’t the most tactful teenager – that this is obviously wrong. You have to be born Jewish or convert to Judaism, you can’t just be Jewish-by-association. It’s not a family club membership! But I didn’t resent her for it or anything, like I say she was a very nice person and we all sort of shrugged our shoulders and accepted her strange desire to be associated with something that to us spoke most strongly of war, conflict, struggle, even genocide. But you know, different strokes, right? These Americans drove to the synagogue on Shabbat anyway, they were all a bit weird as far as we were concerned.

We had a kind of collective Bat Mitzvah ceremony one weekend. We all went to (I think a Reform) synagogue in Jerusalem, dressed appropriately in long skirts and modest t-shirts (it was the Indian fringed skirt era, if anyone remembers that – we all looked as if we were wearing a strange hippy uniform) and did ‘aliya laTorah’ – basically a reading from the synagogue’s big Torah scroll. Actually I think I may have gotten out of that one on the grounds of being an atheist, but again, it was all sort of taken in stride and we had a nice day. For some of the girls it was quite emotional and meaningful, and so again, we didn’t judge them for it.

I suppose in retrospect, it could have been that Jen’s presence on the program was problematic. What if another kid, maybe from a less affluent Jewish family, missed out on their place on the program because she got to go? What if some more religiously minded people were really troubled by her participation in intimately Jewish ceremonies, felt perhaps that her inclusion was disrespectful, or even desecratory? But that at the time none of this troubled me; I sort of filed it away in my head as “not really Jewish but if she wants to be called Jewish and do Jewish things, it’s no skin off my nose”. She obviously had some life experiences, and family circumstances, that made her really attracted to this tradition and culture, and meeting that emotional need seemed perfectly fair enough to me. I myself had never ‘felt Jewish’ or had any concept of what it would be to be Jewish outside of a shared history and family ties, so how different was Jen to me, anyway? And if she did ‘feel’ Jewish in some way, or insisted she had a Jewish soul, neshomah in Yiddish, well, I didn’t care – nobody has a soul anyway, so she’s not that much more wrong than anyone else making that claim.

I have two political identities that are ‘marked’, or non-neutral (the default, unmarked identity being that of the white male): a racialised one and a gendered one. And in respect of my gendered social identity I never felt any different than in respect of my racial one: I don’t ‘feel like’ a woman, I don’t have a female brain or a female soul or female intuition. I am treated by others as women in my society are treated – I get doors opened for me, I’ve been sexually harassed at work, I am referred to as ‘she’ when I’m not in the room. I look more or less as a woman in my society is expected to look, and have many of the interests that women in my society are expected to have, not because of some deep female essence, but because a mixture of peer interests and overt pressure has slowly streamed me into those avenues. I also have the kind of humour that Jews are expected to have, and many of the interests Jews in my society have, not because of some inherited predisposition, but simply because that is what I heard and saw around me all my life.

In terms of people who choose, for whatever reasons to do with their family background, personal experiences, personality or circumstances, to identify themselves with the same gendered identity I’ve been slotted into, I feel much the same as I did towards Jen: I might not really understand it, but it’s no skin off my nose. Why should I care what anyone wears, or how anyone wants to be referred to? Seems easy enough to just be kind and polite, really.

I can’t fully understand why the reaction to the revelation that Rachel Dolezal was not born Black is so much less indifferent than mine was to Jen. I have some intuitions, to do with the exploitation of Black people in slavery and the enormous historical wound that is, to do with the appropriation and repackaging of Black culture for white consumption, to do with the persistent racism and inequality that dog and mar the lives of African Americans. To do, in the final analysis, with trust, community cohesion and honesty in public life. I don’t fully understand it, but I get it.

So I’m not here to say: hey Black people, it’s no skin off your noses. Because it is. It’s a big, big deal when a marginalised group discovers that someone belonging to its oppressor class had potentially infiltrated their ranks under false pretenses, especially if that person is in a position of power.

What I am here to say is: spare a thought for women who feel just as strongly about the fact that the ‘highest paid woman CEO’ in the US was not born a woman. That the person on the cover of Vanity Fair this month was not born a woman. They became women and all power to them – whatever it was in their past, their upbringing, their experiences, that made them feel that they need to make that huge change in their lives, I don’t know it and I don’t judge it. But it is hard for members of a marginalised group to see people belonging to its oppressor class rise to positions of power within its ranks. Whoever that group happens to be.

I know that people reading this are shaking their heads right now, saying “but it’s not the same thing at all! Can’t you see how different it is?!” No. I can’t. Like I said I have two marked identities, and the only way I can form opinions about this is by introspecting about both of them. Mostly because nobody will say or write anything about why it’s so different. People assert that it is, with great vehemence, but nobody will say why. Well, I’m left to make up my own mind then, and in my own mind, there is no why. There are clear similarities and analogies between different people reacting to their own lives by changing or transforming their social and political identities. And that doesn’t make Rachel Dolezal suddenly a saint, or Caitlyn Jenner suddenly a sinner: but it does call for perhaps a continuation, rather than a suppression, of this conversation that I’ve been having with myself this evening.

I wonder what became of Jen. She really was a nice person.

Apr 13, 2015

Dr Christian and the Cartesian Dualism of the Gender Identity Debates


Implicit in the discourse of gender identity is the understanding that the mind, or inner feelings produced by the mind, is who we “really are” – the body is at worst an irrelevance, at best a malleable vessel or tool for the expression or performance of the true person within, a person who has a distinct and stable “identity” irrespective of the physical conditions imposed on it by the incidental body. This view is called dualism, specifically Cartesian Dualism, after the philosopher René Descartes. There is a hierarchy built in to dualism: the mind is the real human being, the seat of reason and conscience. The body is just so much dead meat. To alter the mind is a violation; to alter the body, a trifle.

But it turns out the body and mind don’t work like that. The former is not some inert Golem for which the latter is the magic, animating scroll. To the best of our current understanding, the mind is an emergent property of complex interactions within the brain that are entirely and completely physical. No special substance, no stuff of thought, is circulating around your scull cavity, “being” you. Your mind is not something that is, it is something that your brain does. A process is a better way of thinking about it; or even, according to some philosophers, a mostly illusory effect.

Brains, as we all know, are not independent agents knocking about in the world. Your brain lives inside your body, is an inseparable part of the complex system of interactions and symbioses that make up the entire animated, sentient entity that is you. Your brain eats the same food as you, it breathes the same air as you. It gets sick when you are sick. It goes through puberty when you go through puberty – worse, in fact, the whole damn thing is its fault, because it kicks it off to begin with. Your brain “hears” everything that is said to you. It is a full participant in the process of conditioning, education, learning, trauma, memory, preference building and socialisation that you undergo. The brain does not “store” who you are – it becomes who you become.

When you learn a new skill, like how to do Sudoku or even something much much simpler, like the exactly correct level of pressure it takes to push a thumb tack into your particular office wall with its unique density & resistance, your brain physically changes. It doesn’t change “in order to” store the leaning, or “as a result of” the learning. Learning is a physical change in your brain. A small group of cells inside your head is creeping towards other cells as you read my words, making minute contacts, touching in ways that were not happening before, creating tiny chemical bridges that hadn’t existed before. These tentative little gropes towards learning will be reinforced in the future by a teeny tiny release of dopamine if and when you remember the words I typed here: your brain bribes you with little chemical highs, that’s how it gets you to continue to learn throughout your lifetime, navigating new roads, figuring out the timer on new microwaves, remembering the names of new nurses in the nursing home – unless something goes seriously wrong (as in the case of Alzheimer’s or CJD), your brain-that-is-you is a hive of cell growth and reconfiguration every day of your living life, every bit as much as your gut is (more, if anything, because so much of what the gut does is outsourced to your microbiome, whereas your brain is mostly you).

So to say that you were born with an “identity” that is immutable and fixed, and that your body needs to change in order to be congruent with this identity, is just incoherent. Your identity is a product of things that go on in your mind, which is a product of things that go on in your brain. Your sexed body and your personality or sense of self are not two things independent of each other, but aspects of a single process of cumulative interactions with external and internal stimuli gradually builds up through complex sets of action and reaction to become expressions of a unitary entity which is the complete human animal that you are.

Changes to other parts of your body will, eventually, become changes in your brain. It will learn to feel itself anew (although it can sometimes struggle with that, as in the case of phantom limbs – and it really should be investigated whether post-operative trans people ever suffer from that debilitating condition). It will reconfigure itself (I hate the term “rewire” – such a limited, stunted metaphor for the virtually infinite curlicues and arabesques the brain/mind is capable of) in order for you to walk a certain way, talk at a certain pitch, use particular hand gestures. Your body will not magically “fit” a pre-existing image of your true self in your mind: if you change some parts of your body, another part of your body – that part of it that is in your skull – will continue to change until you can preform the gestures and mannerisms you consider appropriate to your new body seamlessly and without deliberate effort, like a skilled pianist plays scales or an experienced driver goes through the motions of the familiar morning commute. This level of so called "unconscious" skill is the result of well-developed pathways in the brain, which is just a fancy way of saying that your brain has physically changed a lot in order to facilitate them.

If you change your body, your body will change. There is no other “you” out there – or in there – for you to model those changes on. If you really believe, like Dr Christian, that the talking cure is a kind of “conversion therapy” for one part of your body, then the “chopping cure” is exactly the same thing – just conversion therapy, trying to force your body to be something it currently isn’t. And that includes the part of your body that generates your mind, or the amorphous, nebulous thing that is your “identity”. 

Mar 26, 2015

Censorship: it's bad, because it can happen to men

Having recently written about what qualifies as free speech and who we generally take to have a right to it, I was grimly amused to read Nick Cohen's Standpoint piece on censorship in the Left.

It's not so much that I disagree with the main thrust of Cohen's argument: I signed the original letter to the Observer expressing concerns about the creep of no-platforming on British university campuses, which I do think is both a symptom of a worrying conservatism among young people too buffeted by (often unacknowledged) worry about the future to be able to meet opposing, confusing or upsetting information head-on, and a cause of further narrowing and blunting of public debate. No, it's more the fact that in setting out a narrative for the self-destructive descent into Orwellianism, Cohen chose to place its beginnings at the door of Katharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

It was only thank to the United States' superior legal protection against censorship, Cohen writes, that
The US Supreme Court duly struck down an ordinance MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted for Indianapolis City Council in 1984 which would have allowed women who could say they were harmed by pornography to sue.
The proposed ordinance, Cohen claims, was but a censorship tactic seized upon by disgruntled feminists, frustrated by their inability to prove that pornography was harmful to either its consumers, its performers, or the public at large. Legally allowing women to openly test in court their contention that they had been harmed by pornography is censorship. Going all the way to the SCOTUS to prevent them having their day in court is protecting free speech.

This seems both very silly and very telling. Cohen, neither a misogynist nor, ordinarily, a stupid man (only one guilty of what all men are guilty of: thinking he understands women's issues based on no research, because hey, it's girl stuff, how hard can it be?), here falls neatly for two of the dumbest and most pervasive conservative tropes of the backlash age:

1. Feminists are themselves to blame for the social ills they now complain of, from the second shift to rape to, in this case the silencing of feminist voices: had we only not meddled with traditional values, men would be more respectful, women would have to work less hard, and reactionary tendencies in society would not be expressing themselves through surveillance and censorship. You made your bed, ladies, don't cry over unintended consequences

2. When women fight for their human rights, they necessarily and by design deprive men of theirs, in a zero sum game (after which this blog is named) that positions every gain for women as a direct attack on men. More women in the workplace are at fault for fewer men being able to earn a decent wage (the collapse of the unions had nothing to d with it apparently). Better justice for victims of male partner violence is really an attack on Fathers' Rights. And, in this case, a right for women to bring civil suit for damages done to them is an attack on the freedom of speech of the men who create and consume the majority of pornographic material. Hands off our Hustler, girls, what is this, North Korea?

To be anti pornography is not to be, by necessity, pro censorship. I should know, because that happens to be the position I hold. I don't want Page 3 to be banned: I want to expose its irrelevance and misogyny, as the NMP3 campaign repeated ad nauseum. But of course nobody listened - it was always "they want to ban P3", never "they want the Sun to reconsider it". Because the idea that feminists are fun-sucking, humourless, totalitarian granola munchers is so ingrained, even respected columnists who remember to mention Mary Waterhouse later in the piece feel like a coherent narrative of suppression must, somehow, start with them.

Jan 21, 2015


Today is the anniversary of the death of George Orwell, so it seems like a good day to tackle a topic that he is famous for defending: free speech.

I’ve never read much Orwell, I must confess. Donnish and, despite his internationalist aspirations, unremittingly English, he is not as revered outside the English speaking world as he is within it. If you asked the average French person who their emblem of freedom of expression was, they're much more likely to say Voltaire. Were you to pose such a question to a Russian intellectual, they may very well say Solzhenitsyn. Or Vysotsky, as like as not. Or “what is this free speech you speak of”.

But anyway, Orwell is famous for free speech, right? Everybody knows that: Big Brother, surveillance, thought control, language manipulation, bad bad stuff.  So, here we are.

It happens also that today is when the always hotly anticipated satirical news magazine Private Eye's latest cover comes out, and this is the image they’ve gone with:

Oh, those rascally World Leaders! So hypocritical in their solidarity with the French Nation after the massacre of free-thinking, free-wheeling satirists, when in their own country they imprison and kill journalists themselves! How comical! Let’s all be wry and cynical about it in the best tradition of English humour!

Funny, that (not funny ha-ha): that this joke is coming from such a very English publication. After all, similar criticism could have been leveled at the assembled country heads from the Asian-British humourous weekly, or the feminist Viz, or the… Oh wait. There is no Muslim Private Eye. No Arab Charlie Hebdo. No Afro-European Viz, no Feminist Rory Bremner, no Orthodox Jewish (or, God forbid, Zionist!) Voltaire poking fun at the post-WWII pieties of a prosperous Western Europe, sanguine in the knowledge that we’ve done the Holocaust now, it’s so 20th century darling, We Shall Remember and It Will Never Happen Again.

One does rather wonder. Well, no, actually, one really doesn’t. White men have the vast majority of the money, power, influence and education on this continent (sorry Brits, I’m lumping you in). They always have done. They get to say what goes, and frankly they get to say what’s funny, too. And even if it were to so happen that an Afro-French comedian were to amass the money, the following, the influence and the media visibility to really start taking the piss, well then he’d just… What’s that? Get arrested, you say? Barely days after the whole world was up in arms about freedom of speech & how important the French tradition of irreverent humour was? Surely not!

I’m Jewish, which means there’s not really much love lost between myself and Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. Frankly, he creeps me out. But I am unquiet to a degree unmatched by the many self appointed (male, white) champions of freedom of expression that France is expiating its Dreyfus &Vichy guilt on his particular African back. Like, thanks and all that, but no thanks. I’ll handle my own anti-Semitic comedians – the nice gentlemen of the security service could perhaps better employ their time providing Hebdo-style round-the-clock security to my sisters who are speaking truth to male power and encountering the terrifying Heckler’s Veto of death threats backed up by publication of their own and their families’ addresses, employment details and banking information.

It’s not as if women in aren’t killed by men on any given day, is it. Or for that matter, it’s not as if Muslims aren’t killed by drones, occupying armies and so called “peace-keeping” forces sent by the West, like, all the time. Atleast 160 by just this one guy, according to a Clint Eastwood flick that opened "surprisingly strongly" at the weekend despite being the most blatant, virulent anti-Muslim propaganda seen in years. And Clint wasn’t even trying to be funny. Why, one wonders, aren’t Iraqis living in the US provided with NSA bodyguards?! I’d sure want one of I were them!

But then again America is a law unto itself, with its constitutionally enshrined free speech and its tradition of free press and its absence of laws banning any kind of speech or expression. I mean yes, if you’re a black protester holding his hands up and chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, then the police will tear gas and arrest you. And you’ll get called a terrorist by people on TV. And your protest will be reported as if it hadbeen a riot. But look, if you’re a large corporation run by white men, then your freedom of speech is protected by the Supreme Court, so it’s all good, right? Freedom of speech is obviously A Thing! That exists! And people have it!

Yesterday I saw this news item in passing, about a teenager arrested in France for sharing this spoof Charlie Hebdo cover (I have my own suspicions about what colour teenager that was):

I thought it was rather good, mostly because, unlike almost all the Charlie Hebdo cartoons I’ve hitherto seen, it’s actually funny (especially in context). Freedom of speech, it says, is no protection against actual violence. The pen is not literally mightier than the submachine gun. And as if to prove the point, the lovely chaps of the Nantes constabulary hauled in this kid for sharing this on Facebook.

I mean, c’mmon. The double standard here is so eye-bleedingly blatant I can’t even find words to write about it. It seems so thumpingly obvious that freedom of speech must be extended to all lest it be functionally withheld from all that I actually don’t know how to bring this paragraph to a close now.

Except, I guess, to say this. If, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, your instinct was to mount an impassioned defence of the right to offend in the name of freedom of speech, then you weren’t only defending an ideal: you were also defending a status quo. And in that status quo, actual freedom to speak is not an equally distributed resource: rich white men like Rush Limbaugh and Nigel Farage have it, and pretty much everybody else doesn’t. 

Satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye stand for that status quo at least as much as they stand for the principle which they nominally embody. I’m sure the men who run these publications are perfectly nice liberal guys who think that freedom of speech is a splendid thing, Orwell, Voltaire, yaddah yaddah. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are heard that much more loudly and clearly against the background of silence from all the people who are not them.

Oct 23, 2014

What is sex?

The word sex has many meanings. From the OED: 
a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.
b. In extended use, esp. as the third sex . A (notional) third division of humanity regarded as analogous to, or as falling between, the male and female sexes; spec. that consisting of:  (a) eunuchs or transsexuals;  †(b) humorously clergymen (obs.);  (c) homosexual people collectively.
2 Quality in respect of being male or female, or an instance of this; the state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; possession or membership of a sex.
a. With regard to persons or animals.
b. With regard to plants
a. With the. The female sex. Now arch. or literary.
a. The distinction between male and female, esp. in humans; this distinction as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences; (in later use esp.) relations and interactions between the sexes; sexual motives, instincts, desires, etc.
b. Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with) : to engage in sexual intercourse (with).
For the purposes of this post, we are going to ignore the OED’s definitions 1b and 3a+b, as it these are pertinent mostly to literary as opposed to everyday usage. Having done so, we are left with four main definitions:
1. A division into two groups by reproductive function
2. Membership of one of these two groups
3. The social and cultural distinctions stemming from such membership
4. Actually bumping uglies
OK, let’s go ahead and ignore number 4 above too. Not that the definition of what constitutes sex is uncontentious, but it’s not the subject here. It is the subject here, and I think you should go ahead and read that cause it’s good. But I digress (already!).

So we’re left with three things to unpack: what it means to declare a division into two groups; what it means to be a member of one of those groups; and what it means to create or be subject to social and cultural distinctions based on these two groups.

Sep 16, 2014

Radfem panic: when demands for inclusivity are a cover for moral disgust

‘70% of communication is nonverbal’. I really hate that cliché, because I’m a words person. To me, carefully chosen and logically constructed verbal arguments should take precedence over all of the attendant (and extraneous) signals like tone, posture and facial expression. That’s what I like about the internet: it strips people’s mannerisms away and leaves them with only words at their disposal. It comes with all kinds of problems for interpersonal situations, but in the absence of trolling and abuse has been fantastically useful for thought, discussion, argument and idea exchange. I’ve always thought that was a good thing. I never had reason to doubt that the affect I’m missing on-line mostly conveys information that is of no interest to me as someone who is primarily interested in analysing ideas, not personalities. So it came as rather a surprise to me to encounter a really powerfully emotional, non-verbal situation, which translated to a strong intellectual insight occasioned by a person’s affect and not their words or arguments.

I was on a panel discussing women’s spaces at the FWSA conference 'Rethinking Sisterhood' last weekend, along with my friends and sometimes co-activists Sian, Helen and Shabana. All brought some really valuable insights into the question of women-only organising and the possibilities for interpreting and enacting sisterhood in that context; I won’t get into them here, but do follow the link to Sian's blog. The part of the conversation relevant to this post came relatively late in the session, when an audience member raised the question of trans inclusion: does the panel think that women-only spaces should be open to all self-identifying women, or not?

Well. You can just about imagine nobody wanted to touch that question with a fricking barge pole. We all know what happens, right? Either what you say is interpreted as being bigoted, transphobic and exclusionary, or it gets interpreted as anti-woman, patriarchy appeasing and callous. No middle ground, no way of pleasing everybody, and frankly a lot of the time no way of pleasing anyone at all. So there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling as we all tried to think of a way to not let the issue completely derail the remaining part of the session, and in the end I offered the following observation:

The important point, for me, about exclusion and inclusion in safe spaces, is not so much who they include and who they exclude, but that, as feminists, we keep ourselves obliged to the principle of consent. What that means is that even if a group of women wants to exclude us, on any grounds whatsoever, however spurious those may seem to us, our first duty as feminists is to respect their boundaries and not try to breach them or cause them to be breached.

I illustrated my argument by putting up my hand in a sort of “Stop!” gesture, palm out towards my audience, and saying: “the magic (i.e. feminist politics) doesn’t happen on this side of the hand or on that side of the hand. The magic happens at the hand: praxis is saying ‘no’ and having it respected”.

On the whole the argument was well received; though at least one radical feminist in the audience thought that this was a fudge and an insufficiently direct engagement with what she saw as the real underlying question: ‘what/who is a woman?’. The question of what is prior, definition or action, is a complex one and one I think that is being worked out as praxis within feminist communities rather than ever being resolvable by pure reason. So it will remain unaddressed here. What I wanted to get to was a particularly powerful response from one other member of the audience.

This woman (I’m going to call her Angela) opened her statement by describing her own emotional state: she said that she was very upset, that she was surprised by the level of her own emotional reaction to this issue. Angela described the physical symptoms of the reaction to us: her legs were, she said, jelly, her heart was beating, she felt flushed and panicky. She was basically telling us (I think mostly me personally, but I might be being a bit self-centred there) that our words have induced some kind of trauma response in her, a fully-fledged psychic distress event. She then went on to say she simply can’t understand how I could be so lacking in empathy, that I could reject someone out of my space who wants to be there is she is claiming fellowship with me as a woman. She also said that she finds my forbidding, stopping hand ‘incredibly aggressive’.

My first reaction was to be irritated: here I am, trying to make a careful argument for something I think needs to be calmly talked about and discussed, and this woman is trying to one-up me, to exploit her own obvious distress by manipulating my emotions. How illogical! How childish! How, well, rude! But later, in that over-intellectualising way I have, I couldn’t help thinking and trying to really understand what just happened in that room.

To explain what I think did happen, and in fact does happen a lot in discussions about lesbian separatism, radical feminism, women only spaces and other politics of women’s autonomy, I need to refer to three concepts: moral disgust, the uncanny valley, and gay panic.

The first of those is quite a familiar concept. We’ll take as a guide the definition proposed by Michael Hauskeller in a 2006 paper: “the expression of a very strong moral disapproval that cannot fully be captured by argument”. Liberals pride themselves on their low levels of moral disgust, in particular in relation to the sexual practices of others. This is why we tend to conceptualise the objections of the right to certain things like homosexuality as “phobias” – irrational fears stemming from an underlying moral disgust. It’s also why the “phobia” frame has so successfully, and without any problematizing interrogation that I could see, migrated to be applied inside the social justice left, in terms like transphobia, whorephobia, fatphobia, femmephobia and so on.

But here was a person literally, in every physical sense of the word, exhibiting a phobic reaction. Angela was terrified by me, terrified of my implacable “Stop!” And much like conservative activists seeking to criminalise or marginalise homosexual relationships, she was using the very viscerality of her own reaction as a strong progressive/liberal moral argument: you have upset me, therefore I am right. What was going on?

To explain that let’s look at the other two concepts: the uncanny valley and gay panic. The first comes from the world of humanoid robotics. Researchers working with robots found that people react emotionally to with high levels of comfort to robots that look completely non-human, somewhat non-human, and absolutely believably human. But at the point on the scale where robots exhibit almost-but-not-quite believably human features, there is a dramatic dip in the levels of comfort people experience (the ‘valley’ of the name). There are a lot of theories as to what could be the reason for this, and no conclusive explanation, but that shouldn’t concern us here; all I want to point to is the discomfort associated with confronting an object that doesn’t fall neatly into one of two categories (machine/human), exhibiting insufficient characteristics of both but not seeming to be fully either. This concept can be useful in thinking about reactions to trans people and the different ways people in general view drag queens or pantomime dames (obviously not female and therefore not triggering discomfort), passing trans women (completely female-looking and therefore not triggering discomfort even when we know they are trans), and non-passing trans women and cross dressers (not quite fitting into either definitely-male or definitely-female category and therefore the focus of a lot of the hostility and discomfort from the general population). It’s a hypothesis that needs testing, more a hunch of mine than a proven phenomenon of course, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

Lastly, ‘gay panic’ is a legal device employed (sometimes successfully) in the defense of men who commit violent crimes against gay people. The contention is that when discovering someone is gay (or transgendered – the use of this defense has transferred to the category of hate crime against trans people too), some people, in practice men, are overcome by an uncontrollable sense of panic, that functions like temporary insanity and drives them to react violently and seek to destroy the cause of their panic by beating or killing that individual. In essence this defense legitimises violence based on moral disgust, claiming that its visceral power is such that it can lead to irresistible defensive (and therefore aggressive) urges. Why these men don’t just run away if they’re scared, don’t ask me – I don’t think it’s a very convincing argument at all, rather an excuse to make male violence seem inevitable and unavoidable (what else is new etc.).

I think when liberal feminists and trans activists talk about transphobia, they are accusing radical feminists of a type of ‘trans panic’, a desire to enact violence on or at least distance themselves from trans women based on a moral disgust associated with the uncanniness of their sometimes ambiguous presentation. I think this is a mistake: there is, as I was saying above, a rational argument to be made for the need for female only spaces in all kinds of different situations, and radical feminists are seeking to make that argument, rather than simply deny trans people full rights and humanity out of a culpable, in the progressive worldview, sense of repugnance. I think that mistake leads people to respond to radical feminist argument the way Angela did: we react with ‘radfem panic’, a kind of moral disgust that ‘cannot fully be captured by argument’, but just is.

Why? What about women seeking to define, defend and police their own social and sexual boundaries causes that visceral, panicky reaction? It seems such an innocuous thing to ask: just leave us these small spaces. Go on with your lives, think, write, organise, work alongside us, ally with us, but respect our demand for some spaces where we would like to be alone. I mean, put like that, it seems completely incomprehensible to refuse, doesn’t it? Who else but women would be denied a small private space to discuss their experiences of childhood sexual trauma, for example? What can even be gained from breaching those boundaries and enforcing unwelcome inclusion in those spaces?
Welp, here’s what I think: I think (and I know this sounds a bit grandiose, but I’ve had a Big Emotions sort of weekend) that the argument between radical and liberal feminists about the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces boils down to Angela’s reaction to my hand saying “Stop!” And the reason that happens is that the non-compliant woman falls, for many of us, into the uncanny valley of gender, just as much as the non-passing trans woman does. The woman who insists:

“I am not permeable, penetrable, all-containing. I have a border, a definition, a limit to my physical and psychic self which you are not allowed to enter. I contain an authentic subjectivity to which you are not privileged. I get to decide who to empathise with and who to reward with my nurture and my effort; you do not get to claim them as your due. I have an “I”, a real and embodied experience which belongs only to me, which is understood only by me, which I insist must be controlled only by me. I am as fully human as a man. I am a person, and I demand you respect my personhood by respecting my right to set boundaries. Thou. Shalt. Not. Pass.

That woman is a monster of sorts, an aberration for which we have no language. She is uncanny; she is neither a man nor fully a woman, for to be a woman is to be the opposite of all of the above. To be a woman is to be permeable, accommodating, open, inclusive. Femininity is inclusion. The aggressive hand raised in a gesture of prohibition is the antithesis of femininity, and to see someone like me, who for all other intents and purposes looks and acts like a woman, enact that transgression, is disorienting and potentially frightening. All the more frightening when many women, whole groups of them, communities of women stand up and say: no more. We shall not contain. This is our space and we get to say who comes and goes here.

None of the above pertains necessarily to the hoary “are trans women women or not” debate. Who knows what a woman is? I sure don’t. A more badly defined concept hardly exists in the history of Western thought, mostly because for at least the last 3 millennia it was not considered worth bothering with. Everybody knew what a woman was: she was that formless Other that contains as its very function, the repository and source of all life, passive and mute in her fecundity. She has no right to ownership, because her borderlessness lets all property slip through and out. She has no right to know, because she cannot control what thoughts flow into her and what thoughts emanate. She has no right to say who comes and goes in her body and on her body and out of her body; her body’s function is only to receive and contain. She can only feel, and include.

When it turns out that other views are available, is it really a surprise that those views cause ‘rad-panic’?