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’?

Aug 11, 2014

More on work, women, and who is expected to do what

I wrote about women's work recently, and ever since then people have been sending me examples of how that work is hidden, ignored, defined out of existence and so on. It's really a fascinating subject: a dedicated ethnographer could make a life's work out of it. Random example: a Royal Soceity lecture about Dorothy Hodgkin (Britain's only female science Nobel laureate), her career, and why X-ray crystallography is considered "women's work" within the sciences. Another notable expert in this field is Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose work was indefensible (and uncredited) in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

It's interesting finding out about women in the past whose work went anacknowledged and unrewarded, but it can be equally instructive to find clues as to hat is considered work int he first place. This morning I worked at my desk stnding up for 3 hours, which we are all supposed to be doing now because it's so much better than sitting down blah blah blah. I unashamedly admit I'm only doing it to burn extra calories so I can sneak a slice of cake at lunchtime without losing my patriarchally approved sice 10 ass, so don't look to me as a source of healthy lifestyle inspiration.

Anyway, I Googled around to see how many calories three hours of standing burns (answer: 99. Hardly worth the trouble), and in the process I found a calorie calculator on the website of the British Heart Foundation. In order to be able to calculate how many calories you've burned, you need to choose an activity from a pre-determined range, divided into headline topics - dancing, running, sports etc. - illustrated with cute little animated GIFs. I'll give you one guess what image was chosen to illustrate the "household and garden" category.

It wasn't the little dude with the bicycle, let's just say. Anyway, that wasn't the most unpleasant surprise (in any case one could argue the BHF are only reflecting, rater than creating, an unfortunate social reality in which the majority of domestic labour is performed by women). Once selected, the category unfolds into a long list of activities - cleaning, vacuuming, cooking, playing with children, and... Well, see for yourselves.

I admit even I did a double take here. I mean, how likely is it that the British Heart Foundation is channeling Dworkin's claim that sexual access is something men extract from women as unpaid labour, by force? Well, not very, right? I don't know that there's been a separatist radical feminist take over in any major UK charities lately.

No, what's more likely to be going on here is this: the BHF is slotting "Sex" in with house painting for two reasons: they think only women would be interested in anything to do with housework, and they think women would only be interested in sex as it pertains to weight loss. They'r really playing up to two negative stereotypes about women: that we are the natural performers of housework and domestic labour, and that we don't really like sex, lacking an authentic libido and engaging in sexual activity only as a means to achieving secondary aims such as securing the affection of the men in our lives or, as in this case, losing weight (probably as well as securing the affection of the men in our lives).

What's interesting though is that in this case a middle of the road, quite anodyne adherence to popular myths about women has inadvertently lead the BHF to reveal a much deeper and mroe disturbing truth, namely that sex is something men demand and expect from women, and if we don't provide it willingly ('willingly' meaning in this context passively - enthusiasm is not seen as a plus), they often see themselves as entitled to take it by force. Sex is work for many women in this society - not just the ones who turn to it as an actual source of cash income, but also the ones who lie there time after time, staring at the ceiling and thinking about all the house painting and child playing they will have to do tomorrow, hoping that at least he might finish quickly so they could get some sleep. That hackneyed description of a sexually unhappy relationship is not just a picture of commonplace unhappiness: it's a portrait of what it is when one's very body and mind are subordinated to the work one is expected to perform on behalf of others.

Jul 8, 2014

A woman's work is never done

On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was amused to encounter an exhibit in its excellent historical museum titled “The Bäckaskog woman”. This woman’s well preserved remains were excavated in 1943 and were found alongside grave goods such as fish hooks, carving blades and other paraphernalia indicative of a an active life of living off the land through hunting and fishing. The remains were immediately interpreted as those of a man and took pride of place among Sweden’s archaeological exhibits as “The Barum Fisherman”. It was not until 1970 (!) that some enterprising physical anthropologists thought to actually examine the skeleton in detail, whereupon they were staggered to discover that, based on the condition of the skeleton’s pelvis, the Barum ‘man’ had given birth to at least six children in ‘his’ life!
On the face of it, this is a familiar tale of sexist academics and their blinkered view on prehistoric gender roles; in fact I’ve written before about the illogic of most of our assumptions about who made the milestone innovations like the harnessing of fire, plant cultivation, pottery use and so on. But what especially intrigued me about the modern exhibit was that it is now named “The Bäckaskog woman”. Not “The Bäckaskog fisherwoman” or “The Bäckaskog huntress”, just… “Woman”. Even while being restored to her rightful identity, this long dead ancestress of the progressive Swedes is deprofessionalised, her survival activity subsumed and invisibilised within her gender identity. The status of the work this woman had undertaken in order to provide sustenance to herself and her children was lowered from that of a named occupation to the default activity we as a culture have always expected of women, and continue to expect of them today.
Other angles on this phenomenon abound. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes of productive versus reproductive labour: speaking of the attitudes to political and intellectual involvement of citizens in the life of ancient Athens, she describes their division of activity into the private and the public. The private sphere contained the activities that were necessary to the sustenance and reproduction of the body. Food production, textile work and sexual services (as well as the provision of offspring both as heirs and as slaves) were tightly enclosed within that realm. It was only the person who could afford not to worry at all about these necessary activities, who was free to assume that they will be performed for him as his right, who could properly speaking be ‘free’ to engage in the (morally and intellectually superior) public activities of law making, philosophy, political debate and art. I’m sure I don’t need to pain you a picture about just how much choice the people relegated to the necessary drudge work of the private realm had in the matter, nor what gender they (if freeborn) exclusively were.
Before Arendt, the German thinker Thorstein Veblen in his seminal essay Conspicuous Consumption (on a side note, if you haven’t read it, it’s currently in print as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and is some of the most eye-opening 100 little pages I've read in a long time) lays out a theory of development of human societies from the earliest (as he sees it) hunter gatherer phase to the modern consumer society. There is much that we would dispute in Veblen’s description of human cultures as existing along a progressive developmental spectrum form the ‘primitive’ to the ‘modern’, but it is of high importance that he describes the gendered division of labour at each stage and provides a useful schema for thinking about how the gradual subjugation of women may have become embedded in human cultures. In particular Veblen distinguishes between what he calls ‘drudgery’ and ‘exploit’: the former, a form of activity or labour that acts on the self, on the bodies of human beings and on the bodies of live organisms with which we coexist in order to support and enable human survival; the latter, a form of activity that acts on the inanimate, inert objects around us in order to extract something – wealth, value, use – which is of no immediate necessity for survival. “[T]he distinction between exploit and drudgery” he writes “is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit … are unworthy, debasing, ignoble”.
Debasing, ignoble, secluded and unseen: these are some of the ideas that underpin our collective understanding of what work becomes when women do it. In practice the logic is circular: women do unworthy work because they are unworthy; work primarily down by women is unworthy because it is done by women. Under this condition it seems only fitting that the activities or employments of women remain hidden, unspoken of, unaccounted for.
Literally unaccounted for, in fact. In her January lecture at the LSE, “The Reproduction of People by Means of People”, Professor Nancy Folbre described what she sees as an accounting problem in modern economics: the fact that we have no means of accounting for the labour (which in economic language we would class as ‘transfers’ once it had been converted to a money value) performed within families, predominantly by women, in order to support the economic activities of the other family members. Feminist readers will be immediately put in mind of the bill for ten years of domestic service in marriage that Myra presented to her cheating husband upon their divorce in Marylin French’s classic The Women’s Room; but more prosaically we can think of a woman’s taking maternity leave and forgoing her full wage for (say) a year as a transfer of her lost wages to both the child she is taking care of and the husband who is not losing his wages in order to care for the child during the same period. Form an accounting point of view, and in a manner which is congenial to our economics obsessed intellectual landscape, child bearing and child rearing can be conceptualised as straightforward transfers of cash from women to men – but in fact our current economic models do not count them at all. They are, to us as a society, invisible.
To what is this rambling jaunt through history and economics tending? To the fact that the invisibility of women’s work is a key stumbling block even within feminism itself, let alone outside of it. I was moved and concerned today to read this piece about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the fact that it is coming under attack these days. Now, any women’s space that is being threatened with annihilation should be of concern to feminists; we have seen, especially in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies, many women’s services, women’s book shops, libraries, mother’s groups, as well as refuges, rape crisis centres and homeless shelters disappear or seriously curtail their activities due to lack of funding. This is a trend that should be a worry to us all: our continued safety and the flourishing of our movement cannot be relied upon in the absence of physical places in which to congregate and share our knowledge, our skills and our vision.
What struck me especially about Sara St. Martin Lynne’s essay, though, was the detailed, loving way in which she described the decades of hands-on, feet-wet elbow grease that has gone into sustaining the festival:
[MichFest] is a music festival that has repeatedly forgone corporate sponsors and still manages to provide the nutritious meals that are included in the price of a festival ticket for every single woman who attends. This all-inclusive ticket also entitles every woman on the land to community health care, childcare, emotional support, and workshops. ASL interpreters interpret every set of every single stage at Michfest. Every communal space is wheelchair accessible, made so by women who get on their hands and knees in the blazing sun (or pouring rain) and drive nails into the ground through upside down carpets. Great effort is taken to make sure that every woman on that land knows that she is wanted, that she is welcome and that she is precious among us. It continues to be a place that prioritizes the environment and care for the land that the festival is built on. Every single piece of garbage gets picked up by hand. In the months between festivals there is not a trace of festivity left behind. I almost resisted the urge to contrast this to some of the disgusting messes I have seen in the wake of some of our Dyke Marches and Pride Celebrations, but I will not. We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. Yes, we have a great time in those woods, but oh how this community has worked and continues to do so. (emphasis mine)
Reading this passage put me in mind of the Occupy camp in Bristol in 2011: women in the kitchen, women laying out furniture, women taking notes, women creating a free coffee corner, women printing flyers. Men? From what I saw, lighting fires and posting YouTube videos of their thoughts, mostly. What thoughts would they have had to post if there had not been women there to make sure that the camp, as a physical thing in the world, was able to exist? And for that, women were raped, ridiculed online and to our faces, sexually harassed, ignored, belittled. Occupy was the Manarchists’ movement – and for that reason, it failed. (Parenthetically, one of the flyer-printing women that year was me, trying to get this very message through their thick skulls)
The theory of intersectionality has brought a lot into feminism in terms of how we conceptualise the lives and oppressions of women who are suffering under more than a single axis of domination. Gender interacts with race, sexuality, health and so on in unpredictable ways, creating specific and individual oppressions for the women positioned at their intersections. What has often been lacking from the intersectional conversation, however, is the issue of class. Clearly poor women experience gender oppression differently than well off women – but apart from the occasional nod in the direction of material poverty, I have rarely seen a strong engagement with the topic of economic class in intersectional writing. Partly this is an issue of the Left: class politics is out, identity politics (in the proper, and by no means pejorative, sense of the word) is in, and mentions of class smack of a Marxist universality that fails to take the relational particularities of colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, physical ability etc. into account. This is in itself not an always unfair criticism; but it does leave a lacuna where a conversation about work ought by right to be being held.
The feminism of the 1970s and thereabouts is often described as overwhelmingly white and ‘Middle Class’ (almost the only time class comes up in intersectional discourse), its concerns the concerns of affluent women disaffected by being kept out of the most lucrative professions and most senior positions in the corporate hierarchy. As Laurie Penny once said, we talk about maternity leave for professional women, but what about the concerns of their cleaners and nannies? This is of course ahistorical: from the match girls to the Dagenham strikers, gender and labour politics have gone hand in hand throughout the 20th century. It is only now, having rhetorically separated them into non-interlocking realms under the atomising influence of neloliberalism, that we can look back at the seeming failure to explicitly link the two together and criticise it as lacking. In fact, the question would not have computed for your typical 60s radical: labour rights and gender rights were obviously interwoven, starting from Marx and Engels themselves, and onwards through the intellectual tradition of the Left.
If labour in general is invisible on the contemporary Left, then the labour of women is many times more so. As Natalia Cecire writes, “neoliberal exploitation succeeds by ramping up and extending the ways that women have typically been exploited under earlier forms of capitalism”; such is the extent of cooptation of women’s work that it might be harder than ever to see it for what it is - even if it is no longer confined to the inner, hidden spaces in of the home or the nunnery. We don’t have a language in which to praise the sore backs of MichFest volunteers or the long and diligent hours of planning, writing, chairing meeting, washing dishes, baking brownies, painting placards, printing flyers that goes in to the reproduction of the physical thing that is feminist activism. And having no language in which to praise them, we disparage them as frivolous, contemptible, disposable.
In fact the labour of women has always been disposable. In part this is inherent to the nature of reproductive labour, which in the end produces nothing more glamorous than the wastes of the body: mothers are the makers of corpses; farmers are the makers of shit. The hours of painstaking craft invested in a patchwork quilt, a meal, a baby, a music festival, do not ennoble any of these things. Women’s effort is not counted towards the value of women’s productions: the work is of no value in itself. Ignoring or at best denigrating women’s ignoble labour is the economic foundation of patriarchy; and in any case it’s not really work, because we do it as a natural, inescapable outcome of our base natures. Women are ‘caring’. We are ‘multitaskers’. We are ‘better at planning’. We are expected to perform the domestic, social, emotional and bodily labour that enables the current society not as an occupation but as an emanation. Like silkworms excrete silk, women excrete labour; therefore all our work is, literally, crap.
In turning a blind eye to the graft that women put in just to keep the world looking (never mind smelling) tomorrow the same as it does today, we are plugging in to a tradition that goes back millennia; so there is nothing progressive about wantonly destroying the labour of decades in closing down MichFest once and for all. Nothing enlightened in dismissing the diligence and tenacity of women working to safeguard other women form poverty or violence. Without a theory and practice of accounting for, appreciating and foregrounding women’s work, no feminism can be either possible or desirable. We need to start building such a theory, even when talking and thinking about the work of women we disagree with.

Apr 3, 2014

Patriarchy cannot be Breached: Normalising nudity in a pornified world

China Mievile's The City and The City is a novel whose plot happens in two cities that occupy the same physical space. Interleaved and interwoven - in some places completely separate, in others "cross hatched" so closely that adjacent inch-wide stripes of a street or a park bench belong in two different cultures, economies, nationalities and states - the two enemy city states of Beszel and Ul Quoma jostle for autonomous existence in a double-occupancy street-scape. These two conjoint twins, however, refuse to allow any recognition of their points of intersection. While passing buildings, cars and people from the other city on the street, citizens of both are strictly indoctrinated from birth to Unsee their counterparts, to refuse by force of intellectual will and disciplined inattention to enter into the Other's presence. To do so, even in a moment of fleeting recognition, let alone an open movement, would be to Breach - to commit the worst and most heavily punished crime in either city.

Towards the unravelling of the thick whodunit plot, we are introduced to the possibility of Breaching without moving from the spot. A certain path in a park that is shared by both cities (under different names and for different uses) co-exists equally in both. It is not cross-hatched, but fully shared; while in it, Breach is a matter of nothing but a shift in consciousness; one can illegally cross a heavily militarised border simply by moving one's awareness from Beszel to Ul Quoma or vice versa.

When I look at, and read about, the #normalisingnudity hashtag on Twitter (warning: some very, very nasty trolls have invaded the tag and are spamming it with extremely disturbing imagery. Use caution when investigating), I think of Breach, the possibility of moving between two world simply by willing the transition.

The idea of #normalisenudity is not much different from mid-20th century Naturism: to reassert the unclothed human body as a thing that transcends sexualisation, shame and desire, but is rather an everyday thing, a vessel, tool or object that everyone possesses and has equal rights to the enjoyment and use of. This is not in itself controversial, except inasmuch as religious doctrines that fear and hide the body under mantles of modesty and godliness would probably object to the view of naked human bodies in principle.

What's more controversial about the idea of #normalisenudity in the current climate is not the nudity it seeks to increase, but whose nudity it tries to reassert the normality of. Nudity as such is something we are, if anything, awash in: one cannot enter a newsagent or watch a movie without being flooded by more images of nudity than in a shower room with floor to ceiling mirrors. But the nude bodies we are almost battered with are very particular kinds of bodies: predominantly female, overwhelmingly young, almost universally hairless, thin, healthy and unblemished, as well as, of course, mostly white. To reclaim the right of other, not-patriarchy approved bodies of being seen int he public sphere would be nice work, if you could get it.

But you can't. It is not possible in our world to Breach into a reality in which a naked nipple means anything other than sexual object for (straight) male gratification. The semiotics of breasts, vulvas and penises in a culture quite as belligerently pornified as ours is too rigidly fixed to be tampered with; no amount of posting photos on Twitter can shift the meaning now. The Signified of the body, and especially the female body, is policed with at least as much vehemence in our world as the Unseeing of Beszel and Ul Quoma is policed in their own. It would take a thoroughgoing political, cultural and economic revolution to women's nakedness from male desire - trying to achieve that revolution by insisting that people See our bodies as we want them seen is a recipe for frustration.

We cannot expect the pedestrians of Porn Boulevard to see our Empowerment Street road markings. The worlds - that of patriarchy and that of feminism - are too rigidly separated, too violently border-patrolled, too deeply ingrained in people. Posting a naked selfie on the internet can have only one meaning in the semiotics of patriarchy, and that meaning is exhibitionism. I applaud the efforts of some women and men to get out from under that language, but they can't. And sadly, their attempts will bring the likes of hateful 4Chan trolls down on their heads.

Empowerment cannot lead to revolution; without revolution empowerment is illusory. True empowerment of the female authentic material reality is the end goal of, and not a tool towards, feminist liberation.