Jul 16, 2020

Some sort-of answers to a difficult question

I've been really sad and depressed about social media and online discourse recently. It has felt increasingly as if in the winner-takes-all attention economy of Twitter, any attempt to think or talk in anything but the argot of the dunk and the pile-on is just pointless: dissipated into the void, unremarked. It's like yelling into the abyss, except the abyss turns around and calls you a bigot.

But this afternoon something happened which made me remember what Twitter has going for it, and why however miserable it becomes I'm probably stuck there until it eventually collapses under the weight of its own financially non-viable business model: I saw a tweet that made me think. Like, really think. To where I wasn't satisfied with just reaching for the stock response to This Kind Of Tweet (of which there is a vast and ominously prescriptive lexicon by now), but kept thinking well, it's this - but also it's partly that, and then of course there's the other... And I'm grateful for the opportunity to think like that, because it's released something which either the pandemic or the political situation or both have had bunged up inside me like a bad case of constipation.

Anyway. Here is the tweet with the question that made me think, and below are what I think are possible answers to the question:

A sort-of answer No. 1:

It's about epistemological safety: it is comparatively easy to find out how an individual person wishes to be spoken about – you just have to ask them. Regardless of their pronoun preferences, the speaker can feel safe that they are not offending them by using those. Whereas with large groups, or entire populations, like women, the answer is basically unknowable. You can’t ask all women whether or not they find the term ‘cis’ offensive – for one thing most of them would probably respond with a confused ‘huh?’, but for another, there is a lot of very serious disagreement among women on this topic. So anyone claiming to know for sure whether women as a whole find the term welcome or alienating is going to pretty quickly get themselves into hot water, and find themselves having to discuss instead the substantive issue of gender identity, whether it is universal, how it operates, what obligations it places upon us etc. That is not comfortable ground for the sort of person who by using preferred pronouns and deploying the term ‘cis’ are essentially signalling their complete allegiance to one side of that debate (or, to use the language current in those political milieus, is in fact claiming that there can be no debate to begin with).

A sort-of answer No. 2:

It's because of sexism: most of the people who are called cis and most of the people who strongly object to being so called are women. As I have written before, the issue of naming and categorising women is not a mere formality but a profound, foundational element of the patriarchal construction of women as lacking autonomous subjectivity. Where I think we get a good example that it’s not really about the ‘what’ (pronouns, ‘cis’), but about the ‘who’, is the very common occurrence of gender nonconforming women, especially lesbians, having either male or plural pronouns applied to them, regardless of how they say they prefer to be spoken about. In fact I know of anecdotal cases within my acquaintance of lesbians being berated for strongly asserting their preference to being seen and referred to as women. Partly this is because the assertion of this kind of preference by a female person is seen as threatening to the patriarchal assumptions underlying most political interactions even inside feminism, but partly it’s also about the next point, which is:

A sort-of answer No. 3:

It's an expression of people's prior ideological commitments: people who use this sort of language are adherents of a pretty comprehensive ideological view. It encompasses a really broad spectrum of ideas and beliefs people have about themselves, and when spelled out is actually pretty worrying in its presumptions. This ideology, which I haven’t seen described in anything but quite derisive ways that don’t take it seriously, actually has really noble aims: it’s about equality, justice, restitution, respect. And they’re all aims that liberalism, on the surface shares, and Marxism at least respects as existing alongside the class struggle, but which both ideologies have just completely failed to deliver. So it’s actually not unreasonable to look at the mess that was the 20th century and think: “you know what, this is not primarily about liberty and not primarily about the economy. We get the bad  outcomes of liberty only for some, and of an economy that only delivers results for a minority of people, all in spite of the ambitions of liberalism and Marxism. And it makes sense to attribute those failures and those perverse outcomes to something that’s really inherent to people, something deep in human nature that just exists and the only way of getting better outcomes is to grapple with those deep things and get them out into the open”. 

I’m not unsympathetic to these impulses, but there is a runaway element to the investigation which I think is not being grappled with. We are piling up identities, everyone fragmenting into further and further pieces of what constitutes their real self, like Voldemort creating horcruxes: I am a woman, and I feel my Jewishness in a way that’s quite salient to me, but these days I’m supposed to also think of myself as cis, and as white, and as an immigrant, and as heterosexual, and as employed, and as childless (or child free, depending who you listen to – and if you think the cis wars are gruesome, you haven’t seen anything), and as having a class (probably middle), and as Israeli or British or Russian depending on which part the person prodding for an answer is most curious about, and as a Karen, and frankly I don’t even know what else but I am not in control of the list and therefore no longer in control of my sense of self. And again, I’m someone who, as a feminist, a believer in the political salience of sex, is quite sympathetic to the political aims of the ideology that got us to this dead end. 

Or maybe the correct metaphor is not a dead end or a dead drop, but a vast river delta: a diffuse and shifting vastness of rivulets, pools and sandbanks that dissipates almost imperceptibly into the sea without there being a clear sense of arrival, of completion. That political wetland isn’t just ineffectual, it’s also really scary to a lot of people who refuse to subscribe to the ideology and therefore its aims for that reason. And the people who do subscribe to us get very angry, because if you don’t agree with them then surely you must be against justice, against diversity, against wellbeing and flourishing and acceptance for all. Which is why they insist that when you refuse to use one of the linguistic tokens of the broader ideology, that must make you a bad and bigoted person, where when they themselves use those linguistic tokens overzealously or wantonly or against people’s stated wishes, then that’s probably mostly OK, because they are doing it out of good motives, and their ultimate intentions are positive.


So I think if you sat down and really talked honestly and with complete empathy and authenticity to people, these are the kinds of things you would come up with. I think only the middle one - unacknowledged sexism - is completely bad. Both the standpoint theory claim of believing people about their own experiences and the identitiarian progressivism claim of solving political conflicts by bottoming out on who people really are come from a completely good place that I respect. 

But I still fucking hate being called 'cis'.

Feb 16, 2020

Some observations on the differences between femaleness and womanness

A non-exhaustive list of what it means to be a woman:

Being interrupted more during conversation and at work; having a statistical chance of being paid less for the same work performed by a man; having one's pain not believed by medical professionals and taking seven years on average to have pain conditions properly diagnosed; having a high lifetime chance of suffering sexual assault; having a high lifetime chance of suffering intimate violence; having one's clothes and appearance relentlessly policed; spending more money and time than men to achieve a presentation that is considered professional; paying more for lower quality and less well-fitting clothes than men; being called on less in educational settings; having to overcome implicit, explicit and institutional biases about our innate abilities and talents in educational settings; being much less likely to have either celebrity or closer role-models who look and dress like us in positions, either professional, political or social, of power and influence; being offered predominantly sexualised role-models that emphasise our role as objects of desire for men than any other quality or capability; being highly unlikely to have role models of any kind who deviate from the white, able-bodied and youthful ideal of desirability; being expected to minister to men's feelings and either control, absorb or be blamed for violence performed by them; having to undertake the majority of child-rearing labour; being expected to perform more housework than men and being blamed, openly or implicitly, if the cleanliness, tidiness and aesthetic appearance of our living quarters do not meet the arbitrary standards set by our social milieu; assuming responsibility for the wellbeing and medical treatment of any children, adult men, or elderly people in our immediate or in-law families; being likely to have much lower lifetime earnings due to the burden of the above responsibilities; being likely to hold significantly less inherited or earned wealth than men; having a much higher chance of falling into old age poverty due to the above factors; having our testimonies of discrimination or abuse disbelieved by individuals and institutions; being held to a much higher standard than men when we perform journalistic, activist or academic work which aims to demonstrate and analyse the above list of disadvantages; being required to subordinate the struggle for the elimination of these disadvantages to political movements that include, and therefore prioritise, men; being punished and threatened with expulsion from our own political movements when we insist on the priority of our struggle for liberation as women.

A complete list of what it means to be female:

Producing, or having the kind of body with the potential to produce, the large non-motile gametes in sexually reproducing organisms.

Feb 27, 2019

What does Dr 'James' Barry have to do with Satanic Panic?

Tweeter @lascapigliata8 today shared a 2013 paper by Dr Richard Noll in the journal Psychiatric Times discussing the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’ of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s from the point of view of someone who was, at the time, a sceptic. Noll’s main thrust is that since the panic subsided and the diagnosis of ‘multiple personality disorder’, along with ‘recovered memories’ of extreme and ritualised sexual abuse subsided in the 1990s, the psychiatric profession has done its best to pretend like none of it ever happened. He offers and account of the main events from inside the profession and expressed a hope that psychiatrists may now be ready to discuss the issue rather than shuffling their feet and change the subject (I see no evidence to support such an expectation). Scapigliata, in turn, uses the paper to draw parallels with the development and spread of the diagnosys of ‘gender identity disorder’ in ever-younger children, the huge spike in such cases referred and diagnosed over the last decade or so, and the blanket social acceptance of GID as both real and treatable.

Looking at the paper with a historian’s eye, however, what stood out to me was the following passage, about how history was tendentiously reinterpreted to explain the mushrooming of ‘Satanic’ abuse cases as something which has, had we but known, always been there:

‘Sally Hill, a social worker in private practice in Chicago, and Jean Goodwin, a psychiatrist and professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, presented a paper which attempted to validate Braun’s claims by citing historical accounts of allegations of “the Satanic black mass” and other obscene cult behaviors going back to at least A.D. 100. Reproducing these accounts without regard to context, these clinicians read them as fundamentally true reports of actual events. Professional historians who specialize in those eras tend to interpret such material as a discourse of propaganda aimed at undesirable minority groups, whether real or imagined. 
A few months later, in March 1989, this conference paper was published in Kluft and Braun’s journal, Dissociation. It quickly became a citation success in the SRA literature as evidence in favor of the historical continuity of Satanic cults and their rituals. The message to the public and the mental health professions was clear: elite members of the American psychiatric profession seemed to be sanctioning the SRA moral panic. Satanic cults were probably real, had probably been around for almost 2 millennia, and were abusing children and creating the MPD [multiple personality disorder] epidemic.’

Compare this to an announcement from publishing firm Little, Brown and Co about a forthcoming novel about the life of Dr 'James' Miranda Barry, a woman who pretended to be a man in order to pursue her ambitions as a medic, and who incidentally performed the first caesarean section in which both mother and baby survived (representation matters kids!). Under the guise of ‘sensitivity’, the pronouns used for Dr Barry are, presumably, to be changed to the masculine, and her cross-dressing reinterpreted not as an expedient but as an expression of a deeply felt inner identity as a man (who just happened to fancy being in a profession that no woman could aspire to at the time). How such a history of the life of Dr Barry can be made coherent is not explained: surely the novel will have to be completely re-written if the very crux of the story is not ‘woman does whatever she needs to to become a doctor’ but ‘doctor bravely lives out inner gender feeling in the face of, well, not that many professional or economic obstacles, really’.

Or again, see this tweet by the UK branch of Amnesty International’s LGBT Network (they call themselves ‘LGBTI’, but the forced inclusion of intersex people is so enraging to me I simply refuse to participate in their nonsense), where they imply that Hatshepsut, who usurped her son’s power and ruled as the Egyptian king for over 20 years, is trans because she was born a woman (she was born a baby, but OK) but ‘presented herself as a king’. The fact that no alternative framing suitable to female power existed in either the language or social organisation of Egypt at the time does not figure: it is again the case that a king happened to be trans, rather than that a woman happened to be king. (Not ‘Pharaoh’. That word did not come into usage until ~300 years after Hatshepsut’s reign, and so is entirely inappropriate and anachronistic. And yes, this is the hill I will die on, why do you ask).

In both these cases history is being re-written in order to explain something which is happening in the present yes – but it is also being re-written so as do disguise something else which is happening in the present, something which the medic-psychiatric establishment is incapable of either confronting or solving, and which it therefore prefers to invisibilise through inventing and back-dating an alternative interpretation of contemporary manifestations of distress. In fact, of course, neither satanic rituals nor trans identity are long-ignored historical phenomena. Both are contemporary creations of psychiatric patients, in whose delusions psychiatric professionals end up colluding, and which collusion in turn they mask with the trappings of institutional power and official reification.

Psychiatrist and social workers in the 1980s and 90s knew, on some semi-conscious level, that sexual abuse of children and young people was rife, especially in religious contexts. Now, thirty years later, we have the evidential basis for this knowledge: the Jimmy Saville revelations, the ongoing and continuing exposés of rape grooming gangs from Rotherham to Rochdale to Oxford, scandals in children’s homes, and of course, overlaying and underpinning it all, the record of systematic enabling and cover-up of sexual abuse of children by Catholic (and other) priests. In 1989, nobody could prove this stuff. Like Freud and his short-lived recognition that ‘hysteria’ in women was a response to rape, 20th century psychiatrists shied away from looking their society square in the face, and sublimated their suspicions of widespread rape of children in lurid accounts of satanic rituals.

Psychiatrists, educators, social workers and GPs today know perfectly well that children are miserable living in the gender apartheid, the rigidly segregated world of pink and blue, the cleaving of children from their own interests and personalities by fiat of a McDonald’s Happy Meal or a Kinder egg that we force them to grow up in. We are bringing up children, literally, in aisles: narrow corridors of circumscribed choices with no exits, too tall for children to see over the top of to the possibilities in the neighbouring, differently-coloured valley. Simultaneously, we feed them a diet of extreme sexualisation, constant surveillance through electronic devices, a consumerism-first-and-only approach to personal development, and a built and online environment saturated in images of masculine violence and feminine malnourished passivity. Of course children hate living like this. Of course many of them express their desire to break out of this prison. But, acculturated to the toy shop aisle in the mind, professionals and well-meaning parents can think of only one place to the send them: the other-coloured aisle.

Future studies and historical accounts will, I am absolutely certain, view the extreme gendering of the public and consumer sphere with the same uncomprehending derision as we view the slap and tickle ‘humour’ of the 1970s and 80s that camouflaged and legitimised the huge number of children and young people, mostly young women, victimised by men in positions of power or even mild relative cultural authority. They will likely also point to online pornography as a major vector of mental ill health, self-victimisation, trauma, and damaging and violent practices moving from the screen into the lives of young people. Whether anyone will be making the connection between that and the spike in GID that followed, I do not know. The author of the above paper does not make the connection between actual, existing sexual abuse of children and the willingness of professionals to believe in historical, imagined abuse. Perhaps in the future it will continue to be easier to pretend that the two phenomena were unrelated; that the complete capitulation of psychiatry to the ideology of gender identity was an unexplainable instance of social contagion, best studied in its turn in psychoanalytical terms.

To this likely future, I say, no: satanic panic, MPD, false memories – these were all ways to channel the fear of people in the caring professions, and to allay their guilt at not being able to protect their patients from the effects of untrammelled sexual predation. And GID and the medicalised pathway increasingly pushed on teenagers (especially girls – also always over-represented among MPD patients) are a contemporary way for them to divert responsibility from themselves, as adult citizens in the society that harms these young people and makes their own bodies unliveable for them, to some internal flaw in the children themselves – one that can be medicated away. And no amount of re-writing ancient history will prevent it from having been a thoroughly modern story all along. A story about the pains, humiliations, traumas and struggles of today – not of comfortably alien Victorian England, or of ancient Egypt, slumbering under the desert sands. To help young people struggling to live with and in their bodies, we must look to today’s world, or risk ruefully wondering thirty years from now what mass madness had overtaken us.

Jan 22, 2019

'The freedom to be, or become, a gender'

of gender in any individual’s sense of self.

-- Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court

In 2016, writer Sara Ahmed interviewed American academic Judith Butler for the journal Sexualities. The interview meanders around various topics, such as the formation and performance of sexual identity and the construction and institutional boundary policing of academic disciplines, but rebounds repeatedly off the central item of interest to both interviewer and interviewee – namely, Butler herself. In response to a question about professional, academic vulnerability, Butler has this (among much else) to say about how early in our lives we become vulnerable to the labels and expectations of others.

If, for instance, we think about gender assignment as ‘being called a name’ then we are affected by gender terms before we have any sense of what they mean or any understanding of what kind of effects they have. Indeed, this follows, I think, from the fact that we are affected by the ways we are addressed, and those modes of address start early and against our will; they are there, as it were, from the start. Sometimes those modes of address embrace and animate, but they can inaugurate a chain of injury as well.

In this passage, the labels and expectations that matter to Butler are gendered. On Butler’s view, our vulnerability is universal, but not everyone who is vulnerable (i.e. subject) to gendered modes of address is injured by them. A problem arises, for Butler, not with gendered terms, but with the imposition of the incorrect gender terms. On that view, I am not intrinsically harmed, there is no injustice done against me, by the imposition of certain gendered terms of naming which go on to shape and channel my psychological development; I can only claim to have been so harmed if I grow up to strongly disidentify with the specific terms assigned me. To put it more plainly: if someone calls me a bitch, that is an injustice only inasmuch as I strongly feel I ought to have been called a bastard.

This line of thinking is again plainly evident in Butler’s recent New Statesman piece, where she repeatedly references ‘gender freedom’ as the ability to choose one’s gender: ‘one may be born a female, but become a man.’ The problem, on this view, is that we ought not to force gendered modes of address on children and young people because we don’t know whether they will grow up to identify with the terms we choose (typically the terms aligned with their sexed body). We should wait and find out from the child themselves how they choose to identify in future.

This approach seems perhaps eccentric but basically innocuous: what’s wrong after all in not imposing our ideologies on infants? But it betrays a way of thinking about gender that is not simply misguided, it is deeply injurious to the absolute majority of people – especially women – who don’t go through a process of pointedly rejecting their identification with the feminine gender and don’t take steps to switch to the opposite, masculine gender (become men) or to the still ill-defined and ambiguous “non-binary” identification. To illustrate by analogy:

Say you happen to be a Nazi bureaucrat during the 1930s in Germany. If, as part of your administrative role, you slap a yellow star on a non-Jew, the injustice does not reside in the misidentification. The non-Jew might object that he is ‘not one of those people’ and feel aggrieved – they have been, to use a parallel construction to ‘misgendered’, ‘mis-raced’. From outside the logic of Nazism, however, we see that the problem here is not that there are ‘those people’, the abject and inferior ones, whom it is our responsibility to correctly sort into the proper category in order to achieve a just disposition of racial identity. The injustice, instead, resides is the existence of a system of thought that divides people into castes, and a system of symbols that enforces the division. If you wanted to make sure that no non-Jews were ever injured by being forced to wear a yellow star, you'd abolish the yellow star.

If you keep the system but enact a bureaucracy to help non-Jews avoid the injury of being forced to wear a yellow star, you're not protecting them from harm: you are legitimising a system in which their humanity can be abolished by a piece of yellow (or pink, or red) cloth. Similarly with gender, if you protect gender as a system, but enact a bureaucracy to help some people avoid the injury of being coerced into a specific status, you are seeking to protect the hierarchy in which some people's humanity can be abolished by perceived reproductive potential. And yet the demand Butler reiterates in her NS piece is for ‘the freedom to be, or become, a gender.’ The system, overall, remains unreformed - but a certain amount of movement is permitted between categories. This is the epitome of confusing movement with progress.

In other words, gender theory is not a solution to the problems of coercive gender, but merely a loophole. A loophole that allows some people to opt out of gendered expectations and judgements at the price of people's humanity remaining held cheap. Because if there is no greater majority – or at least some stable group of people – who live the normative gender expectations to the full, including the physical and psychic violence that makes them legitimately subject to, there can be no subversion of a repressive norm such that ‘gendered life can be an expression of personal or social freedom.’ There is no need for a bureaucracy that, in Butler’s terms, would help avoid injury for the few people who feel they have been harmed through mis-designation to the wrong gender category.

At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way?

Now clearly, if you conceive of yourself as an autonomous individual in a world of autonomous individuals, there is no problem there: in theory everyone could use the loophole described above. But once that move is made, one forfeits the right to speak and think about ‘political freedom’, as Butler does. Because politics exists only between connected, embedded people. There is no politics of one. Conceptually, an ethic that depends on atomisation for its enactment has no business claiming the mantle of ‘justice’, let alone ‘social’. Pragmatically, the escape hatch of transition-for-some only embeds others more deeply in a system of violent repression.

Butler’s conception appears to be that oppression, at its root, is an injury to the self: the nature of oppression is in that it limits the individual from expressing their authentic self. This is in contrast to the traditional conception of oppression as a material framework of deprivation or curtailment which limits people’s ability to live a maximally flourishing life in material and economic terms such that they can, within that enabling framework, choose to actualise their self. It’s a kind of inverted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with food, shelter and security taking a lower rung to self-actualisation and fulfilment. In the example of Nazi Germany, the reason that the injustice, for Butler, would properly reside in the non-Jewish person being made to wear the yellow star is that they are being denied the freedom to ‘have their desire to live as a particular race within a system of race’ is respected. The properly Jewish person – in Butler’s conception, the person who ‘self identifies’ with Jewishness without coercion – is left to their own devices: there is no place in the self-actualisation framing to decry the fact that their material wellbeing, their right to work and participate in civic life, is being curtailed: the key moment of oppression is not in what a system does to you, but what it calls you while so doing.

The current debate about the amount of movement that should be allowed to individuals within a violently oppressive system – gender – is a distraction from any consideration of reforming or even abolishing that system. The ease and rapidity with which our institutions of power – epitomised by the epigraph to this post, which is a quotation from this Supreme Court judgement regarding a transgender woman’s right to contact with her Orthodox Jewish children – have adapted to accommodate gender ideology should add a pinch of salt to any claims about its revolutionary potential.

As linguist Deborah Cameron notes, while we argue about who should and shouldn’t be called a woman, the assumption that men are the default human beings is going entirely unchecked – and ‘a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.’ While Pope Francis calls for gender essentialism and Judith Butler calls for ‘gender freedom’, feminists should, and do, call for complete liberation from gender and its attendant coercive apparatus.  

Jan 10, 2019

First, catch your hare: on biological explanations for differences in sex roles

‘A knife is a weapon or a tool according to whether you use it for disembowelling your enemy or for chopping parsley’
Elaine Morgan

“Would innate psychological variation (on average) between the sexes be incompatible with radical feminism? If there was a degree of such innate variation, what would the implications be for radical feminism and gender criticism?”

When faced with this question (or something very like it – I had the original questioner help me reconstruct the phrasing) last week, I swerved in what was probably an infuriating way and said that not only is the question itself not answerable with current knowledge, it is ‘une question mal posée’ – a question which interrogates premises that are themselves incorrect or inconsistent.

It is important to understand what the main objection of radical feminism to the social system of gender is. I have written about it here, but to summarise: the moral and political problem, for radical feminists, rests not in men and women having different roles or exhibiting different tendencies and behaviours, but the hierarchy of value that we have attached to any perceived differences, before then naturalising those (perceived) differences and making the value judgements a de facto class system.

I emphasise ‘perceived’ differences, because any conversation about the average tendencies or capabilities of people rests on observation of their behaviour. And the main problem with saying anything definitive about gendered behaviours is that we don’t have any stable idea which behaviours are which. In what follows below I attempt to demonstrate by example that our collective judgements are simply too unreliable to be able to correctly identify average variations between the sexes, never mind interrogate their origins.

Consider that when girls in childhood play with small anthropomorphic figurines made from wood, plastic and fabric, we call them dolls. When boys play with anthropomorphic figurines made of the same materials, we call them action figures. When men use natural materials like marble or metal to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it art. When women use natural materials like wool or clay to create objects of aesthetic value, we call it craft. This is true even in cases where men and women are using the same materials to create the same types of objects: in traditional Moroccan practice, for example, weaving carpets by hand is a women’s job but weaving fabric by hand is a men’s job. The men’s job, because it is performed by men, who anyway control the majority of financial resources, was more highly valued and more invested in, creating a discrepancy in availability of materials and complex tools which led to the development of the brocade industry. Brocades could then be made with silk and gold thread (because the men making them had more capital to invest), making them more lucrative and perpetuating the economic discrepancy. The result is that carpet weaving is considered a crude domestic craft, but brocade weaving is an elite industry. Both ‘roles’ involve putting threads in rows and then pulling other threads through.

Nor do we demand consistency of ourselves when we tell ourselves stories about why certain seemingly-related tasks are associated with men and bring financial rewards, whereas other tasks are associated with women and bring no financial benefits and the expectation of more free labour. Consider the prevailing narrative of our prehistoric ancestors. Most lay people (and a not-inconsiderable portion of experts, too) have a picture in their heads of a rigidly segregated savannah on which men hunted and women gathered. Hunting was dangerous and prestigious. Gathering was easy, opportunistic, and taken for granted. The fact that at least as much knowledge must be invested in distinguishing between ripe and unripe, or safe and poisonous plants, or knowing which parts of the environment they favour in different seasons, is at least as great as the expertise needed to track an animal to it lair. Or even the fact that hunting is an uncertain activity and it is likely that gathering supplied the majority of critical calories to the group and staved off starvation if hunting failed. That’s low hanging fruit. Here are two much greater paradoxes with the standard ‘man the hunter’ narrative:

When we think of prehistoric hunting, we tend to think of stuff like mammoths and bison – big game, basically. But the majority of hunting done by hunter-gatherer groups is not running pell-mell after giraffes; it is trapping (rabbits, monkeys etc.), netting birds or raiding their nests for eggs, and fishing. That’s true of even modern hunters, who only do it for fun. Many more people fish or rabbit course than ride to the hunt. This type of hunting doesn’t require big time investments, stamina or going too far afield. Certainly your average rabbit is not that much more exotic a foodstuff than your average apple. And guess what, it turns out that women did a lot of this kind of hunting, as you would expect – as well as participating in the stereotypical big game kind. You can certainly check a couple of lobster traps with a baby on your back, or whatever limiting function w imagine held women back from hunting (evolutionary vegetarianism, perhaps?). Well, guess what again: when activities such as catching small rodents were recorded among hunter gatherer groups, they were called… Gathering. Because women gather, men hunt. So if a woman is doing it, it’s got to be gathering. I haven’t heard of anyone calling climbing for coconuts ‘hunting’ just yet, but what do you want to bet that someone somewhere has written about it as a more complex, more intrepid, altogether more Manly activity than mere collection of yams?

[Two examples of the above classification practice can be found in this one paper about the Bakola of the Congo region: while gathering is ‘reserved mostly for women and children’, ‘the important tools regularly used for gathering include machete, which functions at the same time as a weapon for killing animals’ – but no mention is made of these animals being ‘hunted’ (earlier in the paper the author also talks about reptile meet being desirable but mostly killed by happenstance upon bush clearing, another activity undertaken by the ‘gathering’ women). Honey collection is classified as ‘gathering’ in the paper, but when describing the honey gatherer the author uses the pronoun ‘him’, without explaining what observations led to this seeming discrepancy with other gathering activities. Other examples abound in the literature.]

The second paradox has to do with agriculture. The standard picture or the development of agriculture is that it was a technological advance made by men. Certainly by the time the dust settled on the Agricultural Revolution (if it can be said to have settled yet, which is by no means certain), men in the majority of known cultures controlled not only the surplus produce of farming, but the rights to declare ‘ownership’ of land and of the people who work the land. Further: at some point before or during this process, men have arrogated to themselves the right not just to farm vegetables, but to farm people. By controlling and trading the reproductive potential of women, men guaranteed not only the food supply, but the labour supply too.

Here’s a question nobody seems to ask: how the hell did they do it? How on earth did men go from running after bison to knowing which grasses had kernels that were good to eat and which were, well, grass? How did they know which berries didn’t kill you and where in the forest they grew? How did they know what the ground looked like above a promising bit of tuber, and how deep to dig with their digging sticks? Did women write some sort of Neolithic Encyclopaedia of Gathering and, I dunno, gift it to men?

The fact is that if we accept the man-the-hunter, woman-the-gatherer narrative, we’re pretty tied up with the idea that the first cultivators of crops – even in a small way, by clearing a few weeds around a promising patch of vegetation – were women. That agriculture was invented by women. Agriculture is possibly the greatest human revolution of all time, a way bigger deal than writing or putting people in silly suits on the moon. Agriculture changed the entire world, rearranged species, transformed or destroyed or created whole ecological niches. And if we believe that women were doing the less prestigious activity in the Palaeolithic, we have a pretty big explanatory gap to fill with regard to how come they suddenly lost their interest in plants by the Neolithic. It’s the carpet/brocade thing at wok again: whichever is the more valorised and lucrative activity, it is instinctively ascribed to men.

These two paradoxes are central to a wide complex of stories we tell ourselves about the past (others are connected to things like pottery: if women were in charge of cooking, they are likely to have been the nes to invent pottery, and therefore to have been the first to use kilns. Then why do we think the technical improvements to kilns that set the stage for ore smelting were made by men?). The doll/action figure duality is a problem with the stories we tell ourselves about the present. But the inconsistencies in how we look at nature don’t just affect how we look at human behaviour. We even gender basic inanimate processes.

Everyone knows that sperm are mobile and eggs are motile, and that sperm race towards the egg and all compete to be the ones who fertilise it, right? Well now. What if I told you that the egg, sensible creature that she is, actually sits there serenely and uses a complex biochemical mechanism to first attract, then identify the most viable sperm, and once identified, actively seizes and envelops it? The ‘choosy egg’ hypothesis is slowly beginning to gain ground among experts, and the fact that it’s only happening slowly, on top of the fact that nobody has ever thought to actually check what the egg does, from the beginning of embryological science until now, tell a woeful story about not only our ability to interpret what we see, but our willingness to even look.

I am a rationalist and a materialist; I believe in evolution, in biology, in systematic archaeology and in careful evidence gathering as a means of arriving at, if not The Truth, then at least a fair enough approximation of a correct interpretation of reality to enable us to successfully operate in the world and continue to improve people’s material circumstances. As such the stories above are not a rejection of archaeology, or biology, or even the toy industry (although the latter can go to its room and think about what it’s done with regard to the Pink Apartheid of girls). But when people challenge me to definitively say which parts of our behaviour are Nature and which are Nurture, how much of sex difference in behaviour is capital-E Evolution and how much is capital-S Socialisation, I always want to take them back to the beginning and say: define 'behaviour'. 

It’s only once we understand that we interpret data through stories, and that those stories can be distorting, contradictory, or absurd, that we can really start the work of picking through the evidence to decide whether there even are significant behavioural changes between the sexes. And it’s only once significant behavioural changes consistently isolated and defined that we can start asking ourselves, and developing the complex methodologies for answering, the question ‘how much of sex difference is genetic?’ Until then, we’re dealing with mythology, not fact. Mythology, let’s be clear, is much more powerful than fact. That is why my personal efforts are directed at busting the myths than ‘proving’ any new facts about women’s brains or maths skills. And that’s why I give people annoying and seemingly evasive answers to their reasonable-sounding challenges about sex difference.

Nov 20, 2018

It's always about toilets. It's never about toilets.

When I was in fifth grade, we had a debate during ‘social hour’ (a weekly lesson with our main teacher, usually dedicated to discussing topics that touched on life and interpersonal skills) about whether it is OK for the popular kids to have class parties and only invite the other popular kids. An unpopular kid myself, I was squarely in the camp that demanded inclusion of all as a condition of membership in the micro-society that was my class. It seemed not merely unfair but frankly monstrous to me that lack of possession of this elusive, indefinable and rare quality, ‘popularity’ could prevent a child (namely, me) from being accepted as a full member, and on that basis excluded from communal activities. I was a pretty formidable debater even at ten years old, and my classmates and teacher had quite a job refuting my passionately expressed (ahem) arguments. Nevertheless, needless to say I lost that particular battle. People get to be friends with whomever they choose to be friends with; even people with otherwise circumscribed civil rights, such as ten year olds, cannot be mandated into recognition of non-existent affective relationships. Where this does sometimes happen – for example where children are pressured to be more affectionate than they are comfortable being towards relatives or friends of the family – progressive social observers usually see this as coercive in a way that not only disrespects the dignity of the child but exposes them to potential harms.

We don’t get away from these issues as we age. One way or another, most of us at one time or another will have felt some resistance to what we perceived as ‘cliquishness’ in others, will have felt slighted by exclusion from an invitation we thought was our due, or will have resented not being asked to participate in activities or groups which we think our pre-existing social ties entitle us to inclusion in. it’s very hard to be made to feel like you’re not wanted. Harder still if you were an awkward child, one with limited social skills and few friends, a child who felt alienated and marginalised by more ‘successful’ children. Nevertheless, most of us grow up to understand the setting of one’s own and other people’s social boundaries as a fundamental entitlement. However much we might sneer at the shallowness and empty-headedness of ‘the popular girls’, and however we might privately agonise about our inability to penetrate ‘the clique’, few of us are ever actively moved to try and prescribe our own social inclusion through social sanction – much less, through the law.

In recent years, however, a new mega-clique has emerged, the contestation of whose right to exclude non-members has gone out of the realms of the interpersonal and into the national discourse of identity contestation. The ‘popular girls’ of the current political moment are not just any girls, or specific girls: they are all girls, or more specifically all female born people. I see my furious, righteously indignant ten year old self in much of the current debate about who does and does not get access to the spaces and categories designated ‘for women and girls’. The injury and the sense of injustice go hand in hand; one feels that one’s pain is exacerbated by an underlying fundamental act of discrimination, of deliberate and malicious erasing of how one sees one’s self. Faced with an open refusal to accept one’s own image as fact, the impulse to force the withheld acceptance is a powerful one. Most ten year olds – indeed, most of us in our everyday lives – do not have the material or discursive resources to force this shift in others' behaviour towards us. But some of us do, and some of us are currently trying to make the impossible demand that other people see us – genuinely, authentically see and perceive us – exactly as we see ourselves, into a legal mandate.

I took this photo in the shiny new Business School building of the University of the West of England. It designates the ‘all genders’ or ‘gender neutral’ or ‘unisex’ toilet, depending on who you ask: I think the administrators of the building simply gave up the looming linguistic battle and went for safer pictorial representation instead. The space thus designated is not, in fact, any single space at all: it is an area with no communal facilities, containing a series of identical doors which lead to identical cubicles, each containing a toilet, a basin and a hand dryer (I rather tipsily – I was there for an evening function – forgot to check for the presence or absence of sanitary bins).

Two things struck me about this arrangement. One was the way the pictorial designation of the space so perfectly mirrored everything I see as wrong with the concept of ‘equality’ as a progressive aim. In the name of ‘inclusivity’, here humanity is cleaved neatly into exactly two parts, each represented only by the most recognisable stereotype for one half of the mammalian order: the dress and the pair of trousers. Inclusion, this emblem implies, consists not in seeing and recognising each individual member of society for the unique set of capabilities, needs and ambitions they are, but in making proportional and sufficient space for the ambassadors of the generally recognised and rigidly delineated ‘types’. This is, in a single image, the ‘diversity problem’: the increasingly recognised fact that simply admixing members of under-represented groups such as The Disabled Person, The Woman of Colour, The Working Class Man etc. does not, in and of itself, ameliorate the underlying material challenges which underlie their under-representation in the first place. In fact this approach often risks either flattening the ‘representative’ into a stereotype or erasing their difference altogether, co-opting them into the norms and values dominant group while providing same dominant group with grounds for self-congratulation.

The other thing that struck me was the way in which the physical removal of a community space was presented as progress. This toilet block had no communal area at all; it offered privacy in isolation or nothing. No congress, no socially useful interaction can have been presumed to have taken place in the spaces which were once contained behind each of the two doors designated M and F. No space for solidarity can have been conceived of as necessary – only a private space for one’s private (and least socially shareable) functions. What such solidarity might have consisted in is either unknown to the designers of the new toilet block, or perceived by them as frivolous, unnecessary, or at the extreme of modern progressive thought, exclusionary (and therefore prejudicial or bigoted).

Solidarity that excludes those to whom it does not see itself as legitimately due is just as painful as friendship that is not extended those who see themselves as human beings worthy of it. Both wound the same fundamental part of our psyche which depends on the recognition and reflection of others to know and feel oneself as a fully realised subject. I am not tying the issue of toilets to my own ten year old outrage in order to belittle it: I am doing so in order to foreground the authenticity and depth of that pain.

There is a reason why feminists and trans activists at odds with each other always come back to ‘the toilet question’. And that reason is not, as is sometimes claimed, safeguarding. True, feminine males, non-passing trans men and trans women may be put at risk in male-only facilities. And true, the inclusion of males bodied people in hitherto female-only facilities represents a potential risk to women and girls. But if that were the only problem, the issue would be solved by gender ‘neutral’ toilets such as the one described above, or by the creation of what Holly Lawford-Smith & Emily Vicendese, in their recent response to earlier work by Lorna Finlayson, Katharine Jenkins, and Rosie Worsdale, call ‘third spaces’: facilities located adjacent to all-female and all-male ones, targeted at trans, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary people, but open for use by all. Lawford-Smith and Vicendese “see third spaces as a workable solution to the fierce debate over female-only spaces”, and reject the argument that the use of such spaces would force people to ‘out’ themselves as trans.

That argument, as advanced by Finlayson et al. as an objection to third space provision, is indeed spurious. However it is spurious not because, as Lawford-Smith and Vicendese would have it, we could incentivise non-trans people to use such facilities in sufficient numbers that they mask the presence and identity of trans users, but because the original problem only arises in the first place for those who are self-outing as trans by virtue of their inability or unwillingness to pass. You can only out yourself as trans by entering an all genders bathroom if it is the case that you would be recognised as trans were you to enter an all-female bathroom. If we put aside the risk to trans people as a result of male violence in all-male spaces as a problem to which the reduction in all-female provision cannot ethically be the solution (as I think we must, and as almost no-one is), then the chances of a trans woman being challenged in or removed from and all-female bathroom by dint of not being female and the chances of her being ‘outed’ as trans by some feature other than which door she walks through are exactly statistically the same. And yet Finlayson et al. do advance that argument, and Lawford-Smith and Vicendese engage it on its own terms.

Both teams of writers are, I think, distracted by the safeguarding rhetoric, and overlook the psychological structure of the original claim that led to the contestation they are engaged in. The reason that third spaces – or indeed gender-neutral spaces of the type I described above – are repeatedly rejected by trans activists as impractical, unworkable, unnecessary, offensive etc. is because what is being truly, fundamentally demanded is not access to plumbing: it is access to solidarity and recognition.

It is not incidental, and has never been incidental, to the structure of this discourse, that it is these quotidian, ubiquitous resources that are the first, the main and the enduring locus of contestation, of demands for access and refusals to grant it. The concerned mothers and the terrified trans women (much as both have something genuine and frightening – namely, men – to be concerned about) are in reality contesting not the practical question of who should be able to enter female toilets, but the much harder one of who should be seen as having a right to do so.

The shared space of a female toilet has a long-term cultural status as a venue for tantalising female mysteries. Those not allowed access to them are forever wanting to know what goes on inside: why do you always go in groups? What do you talk about in there? Do you do each other’s makeup? Are you talking about us?! Incel and MRA communities have hilariously lurid fantasies not only about the illicit activities (read: ones that exclude men) which women get up to in the loo, but also the luxurious facilities and undeserved comfort with which they are provided at the expense of men’s. A hard-won resource that enables the participation of women in the public sphere, sex-specific toilets were a contested and potentially threatening space from the earliest days of public sanitation.

Entrance into these very spaces – not inferior versions which have all the practical accoutrements but lack their most vital feature, the entrance-by-recognition requirement – is what is at stake.
The kind of pragmatic and generous all-inclusiveness proposed as a practical solution to what is a recognition problem by Lawford-Smith and Vicendese is the opposite of what is being really, genuinely demanded by trans activists and their allies. All-inclusiveness or gender neutrality are like a school dance organised by the teachers: not the same thing at all. Sure, you come and you dance and all the popular kids are there and they have no choice but to share a space with you, but you have not gained entrance into their ranks. You’re still an angry little girl they laugh about in private: not recognised for the interesting and valuable human being you know you are inside.

But it is impossible to mandate recognition. Not impossible as in ‘wrong’ or ‘illegal’, but literally impossible. We do not control the insides of other people’s heads. If we want to be seen by others for what we think we truly are, we have no choice but to be that person as well and as hard as we can, and hope for them to recognise us. And as angry as this makes people, as unfair as it seems, as absolutely contrary to the simple – for many but not all - fact that Trans Women Are Women, this cannot change.

I will give the last word to @Kinesis, a trans woman who made some of the best observations about assimilation, acceptance, recognition and allyship I’ve seen in a while on Twitter: “We need support. But true support, the kind that actually helps, never comes from people who feel forced into placating you. It doesn’t work.”

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.