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.

Mar 6, 2014

I know how I feel about catcalls, thanks: a response to Paris Lees

Dear Paris,

Let me tell you a little bit about what street harassment – or “catcalling” as you term it – has meant in my life. Perhaps it will help you understand why some women have found your VICE piece so disquieting, and if it doesn’t, well, all I’ve done is laid bare my vulnerable past and upset my mother, so NBD (sorry mom).

When I was about 11, a boy in my neighbourhood was in love with me and wanted to “go steady”. He was a very attractive boy and I was very flattered, until one afternoon he insisted on exposing himself to me. He just wanted me to “look at it”. I said no – I was scared and embarrassed and I didn’t want to look. I ran away. This boy and his best friend then turned sharply from admirers to haters: they started yelling abuse at me if they saw me on the street, sometimes chucking stones, and once they actually grabbed me, but that’s a story about sexual assault and not catcalls so never mind it for the moment

At about the same time, two other boys (why do they always work in pairs?) were also paying me and a (different) friend attention. At first we were flattered, they were older boys and I actually had a crush on one of them anyway. But then, during swimming sessions, they started to get intimidating. They would dive and come up between our legs. They’d playfully threaten to undo our bathing costumes. They’d corral us in the deep end and leeringly ask us personal questions. Long story short, I can’t swim to this day, and one of those boys, who lived on my street, also ended up yelling things and chucking stones at me. Stone chucking, it turns out, is a surprisingly common experience among pubescent girls. Leviticus was onto something.

These were probably my earliest introductions to catcalling and the interface between it and actual violence. They are only two among many more, but they stick int he mind.

You’re probably getting ready to say that my experiences are not “true” catcalls, that this is not what you were talking about at all, that the examples you gave are somehow qualitatively different from my experiences. I’d like to ask you – how? If there is a clear difference between what those boys were doing when they were menacing me at close quarters and what they and other boys and men were doing when they were shouting at me from a distance, what is it? Can you describe it, other than telling me that in some of the cases I was right to be afraid, and in others I was wrong, and should have been flattered?

But wait, that’s not the end of my story, so before we get into further judgements about how I should just relax and learn to like street harassment, let me just tell you that I grew up to love it. I reveled in catcalls; they were daily (and believe me, they were daily) reminders that I’m desirable, that I am seen, that I am noticed. In a world where boys at school would start hissing if I tried to speak in class, where my father and other men in authority explicitly told me I had no right to speak, being seen was at least better than being ignored completely. It was something. An indication, however small, that I am making a connection with people in the world. I treasured it. Some days, smiling back at a catcaller was the most genuine emotion I was empowered to express to a man. Not because I’m a timid shrinking violent, but because they were not listening. They only gave a fuck about what they wanted to, well, fuck.

What changed my mind, I bet you’re wondering? Was I eventually raped in some sufficiently filmic way that my attitudes experienced a redemptive turnaround? Did I get old and fat and stop being attractive to men, subsequently becoming embittered? 

Well, not exactly. I did get older, of course, everyone does, but male attention mysteriously failed to disappear. I’d turned against the casual street Romeo a lot earlier than you’d think, though. It started when, aged 22, my then-boyfriend playfully ordered me to get up and take a twirl for a friend of his at a party. I was wearing a very short dress and looked, if I say so myself, fucking unbelievable, and he wanted to show me off. I did not know the friend, and felt shy. Without analysing my feelings, I said no. He went on badgering me. I said no again. He wouldn’t stop. It went on and on and on, without resolution. He was ‘nice’ about it, smiling and complimentary. Nobody told him to knock it off. The evening just trailed off like that - I don’t have a neat little parable of how we had a huge row and then broke up over it; we didn’t. It hadn’t been an avalanche, but the fluttering of a few snowflakes.

That was probably the first time in my life I consciously declined male attention. A man wanted to admire me and I said no. This was, to my surprise, not the winning answer. The second and more dramatic time was while I was working as an archaeologist in a small town up north. Archaeologists are not known for their glamorous work attire, but we – a visible minority of outsiders – were often remarked on and called at on the street. One night we were walking back from the pub and a car full of young men drove past and shouted something obscene at us. I don’t even remember what. I just remember I was tipsily flourished a middle finger at the car’s retreating lights by means of a mild protest.

The car screeched to a halt and went into reverse. It slam-stopped alongside us and the driver leaned out of the window and started threatening me: I’m going to rip your face off, I’m going to fuck your mother, you fucking ugly bitch; the usual. My colleagues quickly pushed me to the back of the group, not to protect me, but so that they could apologise to the obviously violent thug in front of them to make him calm down and go away. I was strongly given the impression I should shut up and not make any more trouble, before everyone gets the shit kicked out of them.

It was a scary and educational experience, a bit like the stone throwing; but even after that I didn’t start rejecting all catcalls. Sometimes they made me smile. Sometimes they were mildly annoying but no big deal. Sometimes, like a few years ago on New Year’s Eve, they quickly degenerated into open attempts at sexual assault in a public but dark and secluded space. But one thing is absolutely constant: if I reacted negatively, it escalates. Straight away. No exceptions.

Catcalls are a bit like make up (or any other synecdoche for femininity) in that respect: they are totes a choice, until you try to choose not to. Once a woman pushes back against catcalls, the underlying violence, the resentment and hatred simmering just beneath the surface, quickly becomes apparent. If you think that’s far-fetched, do a little experiment: next time you get “eye-fucked on the way to work”, tell the guy to stop staring at you. See what he says, or whether he continues to look at you with admiration. I’ve got a strong hunch that the response you’ll get will be a tad less than empowering.

If you don’t have the trauma of my pre-teens to teach you to be afraid of male attention, then I can only be glad for you. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. But it would make me challenge even more strongly your assertion that feminists who say that street harassment is harassment, and is not acceptable, are “teaching women to be constantly afraid”. Who are you to tell me what made me afraid? Of course different women will feel differently about this uninvited public attention, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to police women’s reactions to harassment. What I do insist on is that it is never a compliment, always a power play. Oh, you can “make a choice”, as one of your interviewees did, to be “empowered” by it (empowered to do what?). But you can not choose to avoid it. If you so much as question a man’s right to impinge upon your privacy in public, you’re in for abuse. That doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it?

No one had to teach me to be afraid, really. No tales of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were necessary to instill timidity and caution in me. I didn’t read the Everyday Sexism blog 30 years ago and think “oh wow, all these hundreds of women really hate it when men yell at them on the street or stare at them on the underground, so I’d better get upset about the heavy breather rubbing himself against me on the bus yesterday!”. If anything, the problem was that the people around me refused to take my fear seriously, like you are refusing to take women’s fears seriously in your piece today, implying that your personal enjoyment of catcalls should erase or negate the deep-seated and perfectly reasonable fears of others.

Boys showed me that I had better be afraid, not feminists. Boys and men taught me that there is a direct link between violent speech and violent action. They taught me that if I reject their advances, I will be punished. They taught me that verbal violence does shade into physical violence, because it did. These were lessons I learned young, and I learned them well. That you choose to simply reject that view without offering evidence to the contrary is not going to change my mind. That’s my lived experience. It is just as valid as yours, and it is shared by many women. Please don’t tell us that to be afraid because bad things happened to us is “infantilising”. To be afraid of what is clearly an imminent danger is a mature emotional response that millions of women are entitled to have - without being snidely written off as insufficiently “sexual” by those who refuse to acknowledge our experiences.

Feb 17, 2014

What gender is and what gender isn’t


Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing with trucks. It is the additional assertion that doll-playing people who play with trucks are deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people have stronger libidos than other people; it is the assertion that the people with low libidos owe people with high libidos satisfaction of their desires. It is furthermore an assertion that low-libido people who display high libido are deviant and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction and also violence. In this way it creates a hierarchy between low-libido people and high-libido people, and a power imbalance that allows high-libido people to use violence in their relations with low-libido people.

Gender is not a straightforward assertion that some people are always the doctor and other people are always the nurse; it also asserts that nurses are less valuable than doctors. It furthermore asserts that nurse-people who want to be doctors should nevertheless be economically under-compensated compared to doctor-people doctors, and that doctor-people who want to be nurses are economically over-compensated compared to nurse-people nurses. In this way it creates a hierarchy of economic injustice and maintains it through the non-arbitrary distribution of financial rewards.

Doll-playing people with high libidos who train to be doctors are highly likely to be considered deviant, to have been subject to violence, and to be on the losing end of a non-arbitrarily unjust distribution of financial rewards.

I will give you a minute to think about what we tend to call to these libidinous doll-playing doctors.


You may have noticed that I said “gender” and not “gender oppression”. Gender creates hierarchies with unjust power differentials; it is oppression. People are not oppressed “on the basis of gender”, they are oppressed by  gender. Gender, like class, has two relative positions, whatever Mark Zuckerberg tells you: up and down. Powerful and exploited. Fully human and non-person.

You will notice that at no point in this little disquisition have I referred to the genitalia of the truck-player-libido-doctor class. Or to anybody’s genitalia, for that matter.

That’s because genitalia have nothing to do with it. The phenomenon whereby people are sorted into groups, characteristics are said to apply to those groups, and then people to whom those characteristics do not apply are laid in a Procrustean bed of social sanction is in no way, shape, form or meaning biologically embedded. It is arbitrary.

Let me give you a different example[1].  It’s a pretty good example because it shows how a system of domination went from arbitrary to non-arbitrary, and the benefits to the dominators that could be had from that.

In the ancient past, (and in some places at present) any person could become a slave. Greeks enslaved Greeks, Romans enslaved both fellow Romans and Gauls, Germans, Britons and Egyptians (to name a few); the Barbary Corsairs raided European shores for slaves and exported some millions of Europeans for slavery in Africa and the Middle East. British plantation owners bought their fellow countrymen who had been sold into slavery by their government after being convicted of a crime.

But at some point during the economic development of what would later become the Southern United States, this changed. For the first time in history, enslavedness ran along colour-coded lines. People with (certain kinds of) dark skin were seen as automatically slaves. This create the paradoxical situation that did for Solomon Northrup: that he was legally a free man in one state but, based on nothing but the colour of his skin, legally a slave in the other. It had nothing to do with him as such; it was arbitrary as regards the individual, but non-arbitrary as regards the group, or class. Slavery became encoded in the racial identities attached to people from African descent and stopped being an emergent factor contingent on war or economic upheaval.

A common hypothesis for why slavery turned from being random to being racially based is class warfare. White and black people resisted the economic and political oppression they suffered together, as in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The policy of placing one arbitrarily in a superior position to the other split their resistance and refocused solidarity along ethnic instead of economic lines. Landowning capitalists: 1, poor revolutionaries of all colours: 0, black people: oy vey.

There is nothing, nor was there ever anything, nor could anything ever have been hypothesised to exist, that makes people with black skin more slave-like or slave-prone or slave-worthy than white people. It was and remains one of the profoundest injustices ever committed by man against fellow man[2] for the sake of protecting entrenched economic interests.

Nevertheless, the colour of people’s skin (as well as other associated physical characteristics of course) was the ostensible basis on which the dichotomous nature of free vs. slave was imposed. Nothing, I repeat, nothing whatsoever inherent to the blackness of black people could possibly have caused white slave owners to so oppress them; nevertheless, it was the colour of their skin that served as the pretext for dehumanising and exploiting them.


In a similar vein, nothing whatsoever about women’s bodies can justify the historic and ongoing economic, sexual, epistemological, religious and political exploitation, oppression and injustice inflicted on us as a class.

And yet it is nevertheless the case that our biology – our bodies, arbitrary features of our physiology that could in no way be said to be relevant to our political, sexual, intellectual, religious or economic ambitions and activities – that were and continue to be used as the ostensible pretext for so oppressing us.

To say that biological sex is at the root of women’s oppression is to state an easily verifiable historical fact. Go back as far as Aristotle or the Jewish Bible, and women are described as inferior, fallible, unclean or subhuman based on nothing other than our ability to gestate and lactate. The connections are clear, unambiguous and unashamed, and they have by no means retreated into a distant and irrelevant past; they underlie and underpin the continued segregation of women as a class into a gender – a genre, or type, in the original French – that plays with dolls, has a lower libido, and is better suited for a low paid nurse.

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact. The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other. However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.

Sex exists[3]. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a - relatively minor - entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

[1] I know. You find it “incredibly problematic” that I would use racism as an example because the “overwhelming majority” of radical feminists are “white and middle class”. The fact that that’s how you read people who don’t trumpet their racial or class identity for you to see, because they oppose identity politics, is in no way an indication of your own internalised biases about the sorts of people who go in for radical analysis, but a totes factual reflection of the demographic of a group you disapprove of. This makes complete sense. Have a nice day.

[2] Notwithstanding the women slaveowners of the South, I use the term advisedly.

[3] Oh yeah, there's a paragraph missing, right? The one where I assure the reader that I bear trans women no ill will and am fully committed to their legal emancipation and bodily security? Well, if you think you’ve a right to demand such a paragraph, I have one thing to say to you: fuck you. If you think that simply admitting that women exist is, absent some explanatory waffle, a form of hate speech by omission, please go away and never darken my blog again. You are too stupid and mean-spirited to be allowed access to the English alphabet.

Jan 22, 2014

Men: Stop telling us how to do feminism

Feminism is one of those things everybody has an opinion about. Women, because it affects them; men, because they think it doesn’t affect them. The belief that we all know how to do feminism, however, is rooted in deep and probably completely unacknowledged and unwelcome misogyny: it must be simple, it’s only something that women do. “How complicated can it be? I’ve read a few CiF columns and even maybe a book or two on the subject, of course I totally get it. Plus some of my best friends are women”. Applied to any other area of life, such an approach would be absurd. Can you imagine a senior Guardian columnist barging into a football supporters’ forum & haranguing them about the offside rule? Or a journalist marching into a mechanic’s workshop & lecturing him at length about how it’s the clutch he should be looking at because obviously tires are of only minor importance in the grand scheme of things? (Disclosure: I know next to nothing about either football or cars. Not because I’m a woman, but because they’re both pretty boring subjects. Then again, the men who lecture feminists about doing feminism know close to nothing about feminism, so I reckon we’re even).

When women attack feminism, they tend to go for the how (this is one of those enormous rhetorical generalisations to which there are many exceptions that I haven’t got the energy to fight with you about below the line, dear reader: just work with me here): you need to do more of this, less of that, you need to listen more to marginalised voices, you need to be more inclusive. These criticisms can be intemperate, even hurtful, and they can side-track the conversation for a while, but they accept the basic premise of “doing feminism right now is quite an important thing”.

Men on the other hand have a tendency to concentrate on the what: don’t campaign for inclusion, campaign against rape. Don’t you know there are women who have no access to education? Haven’t you heard of FGM? And did you hear the government are instituting cuts that mostly hurt women?! (Nah, I haven’t heard; do tell me about it, oh wise man, because being but a weak and feeble woman, I don’t actually read the news or know how it affects me. It’s this crazy thing we little ladies do).

The difference between the two approaches, which is obvious when you look at them side by side like this, is that the first approach is designed to make feminism better; the second is designed to make feminism impossible. We can’t not-campaign for anything because we are currently not campaigning for everything. The enormity of the systemic discrimination and oppression of women makes it a priori impossible to tackle it all in one big go; we have to break it down into smaller chunks and deal with each of those at a time – not just as individual campaigners, but also as a movement overall. Hence waves, in case you wondered. Mind you, I don’t really think the men telling us to go and campaign about FGM when we’re talking about sexual harassment in the workplace actually care about FGM (I’d like to see their campaign on it, for a start): it’s just become a kind of Godwin’s Law of feminist-bashing, a shortcut to the moral high ground for people who are more interested in shutting you up, because you’re making them feel uncomfortable, than in mutilated vulvas.

This feminism related Dunning-Kruger effect serves not only to embarrass otherwise intelligent men by temporarily reducing them to the level of analysis & insight of Daily Mail commenters; it’s also pretty damn draining on the limited and already embattled resources of the still-too-small cadre of brave women tackling systemic discrimination, male sexual violence, economic injustice and cultural femicide head-on. We know pretty damn well what we’re fighting for and why, and, actually, much as it might astonish the Dan Hodgeses & Michael Whites of this world, we have a pretty solid understanding of what’s important to us and how it fits into the big picture of ending sexism. We, unlike you, get it. Now be a love and let the big girls get on with it while you sit quietly on the side-lines and maybe learn a thing or two.

Jan 15, 2014

My Tragic Tale (Not Really LOL)

Welp, abortion is making headlines again. Imaginary abortion, as it happens - since nobody has ever managed to produce an actual real live sex selective abortion in this country anyway. It's all hearsay and supposition, but it won't stop anti-choice, anti-woman organisations from using this scare tactic to try and roll back the clock on women's right to their own body. That's how these things work: there is no good argument in favour of denying women human rights, so antis have to rely on lies and allusions.

Personally, I think we don't talk about abortion enough in this country. Well, in any country really. We have a lot of (mostly) men talking about what abortion is and isn't and what women should and shouldn't be allowed to do with their own hooches, but actual women talking about actual abortion? Not so much. And this silence contributes to the antis' efforts to portray abortion as something shameful and secret, when in fact for most women it's a medical necessity no worse than a root canal.

A few days ago, a blogger shared her personal experience of abortion, very bravely I think in the prevailing climate of shaming and judgement (sadly the post has since been removed for reasons unknown - restored & linked to! MS). I really admired her, but ummed and ahhed about doing the same, mostly because of What Mom Will Think. But I'm over than now, so below is the story I shared with Education For Choice, who are running a workshop about abortion next weekend and needed testimonials. 

Dec 5, 2013

Extra, Extra! Scientists misunderstand own research!

Look below the line on any newspaper article dealing with women’s equality, and you’re guaranteed to come across at least a couple of comments condescendingly reminding you that there are differences between men and women. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the wink-wink-nudge-nudge “apart from the obvious, haha!”, sometimes it’s a sort of exasperated superiority at the author’s sheer silliness. Often, it will appeal to scientific authority along the lines of “research has repeatedly have shown”, or my personal favourite, “it’s proven by science”.

And frankly, you can’t really blame people, can you? Quite apart from the success of books (and the myths they engender) like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” and “TheEssential Difference”, which one could say simply capitalize on a pre-existing thirst to have gender stereotypes bolstered by the borrowed authenticity of science, when actual new research does come out, it’s invariably reported in the press in ways that hysterically emphasize the parts of the findings that fit with prevailing notions about the difference between men and women, and usually utterly ignore the rest.

The reason this week’s neurobabble scoop is worthy of notice though is not that the newspapers trumpeted it as the final proof that men are better at reading maps (and should therefore presumably continue to dominate the higher echelons of politics and business, not that I’ve ever seen the connection, personally), but that in doing so they did not misrepresent the researchers’ own conclusions.

Which is quite remarkable, considering that the work actually didn’t turn up the results the scientists say it turned up.

Two excellent pieces written by people who have the patience to trawl though the newsprint babble point out two key ways in which this research did no, in fact, demonstrate that behavioural differences between men and women are explained by difference in the brain.

This piece, by Cordelia Fine, brings to light the interesting fact that the data set these researchers used doesn't show any measurable behavioural differences:

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.
 Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.
 As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

And this one, by my friend Paul Harper-Scott, winkles out the hidden detail that they didn’t find any structural brain differences in children, either:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds. That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls.

In other words, this new and exciting research, reported to “finally prove” why men and women behave differently because of their different brains, didn’t prove either that 

a) men and women behave differently, 
b) they have innately different brains, 
c) that there’s even a connection between the two.

And yet not only the gullible science journalists and credulous public, but even the people looking at the data themselves, interpreted these non-findings in a way that reinforces the dominant stereotypes about men and women in a post-industrial liberal democracy.

It’s hard not to feel like the world has gone just a little bit delusional; like we’re arguing with someone about the colour of the sky, pointing to it and going “but look, look at it, it’s right there!” only to have them give us a pitying glance and say “yes, it is indeed yellow, like we told you. Your problem?”

It’s not up to science to prove or disprove the stereotypes about the sexes and gendered patterns of behaviour, in other words, because as long ago as the 90's, people like Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the persistent under-reporting of brain research studies whose findings showed little or no structural or operational difference between the sexes (over 90% of all such studies, if I recall the quotation correctly). This stuff is not new, and we can't leave it to the assumed objectivity of scientists to debunk decades (centuries!) of bunk. It’s up to feminists to get it through these people’s thick lab coats that there are no differences worth speaking of, and make them get down to the more interesting work of trying to explain why we so persistently believe there are. Because ingrained attitudes manufacture their own brand of "evidence", in spite of and in the face of everything that we can justifiably advance as fact.

Nov 9, 2013

Katy Perry, Joss Whedon, and who is and isn't a feminist

Anyone who says "I'm not a feminist, but..." is not a feminist. Not because they don't “really” believe in equality or anything like that, but because they clearly don't want to align themselves with the radical potential of feminism. And that's fair enough.

I don’t like the discourse that says "if you're not a terrible person and in principle are pro-equality, then you’rea feminist, by definition, because we say so". Quite apart from being kind of arrogant, it's wrong, because belief in equality is nowhere near being a sufficient condition for feminism. It's all well and good to say that you’re against discrimination, but discrimination isn't like a coffee stain, something discrete that can simply be rubbed out of the world and then everything will be hunky dory. It's part of a system - in fact it's just a means to an end - and if you're not ready to see the system collapse, then your belief in equality is about as much use as a chocolate teapot in terms of improving people's lives in meaningful ways.

The systemic discrimination against women, people of colour, people whose gender identity or sexual/romantic preferences don't support the capitalist heteronormative dualist model, people who are disabled, people who have mental or cognitive problems - all of this is not a bug. It’s a feature. In order to continue existing in its current form, the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy needs to sort us all into neat little pairs in which one is economically and morally subordinate to the other (it also needs to sort us into larger groups in which one is always subordinate to another: poor to rich, black to white, female to male). That’s frankly what makes the world go round (nope, not money - this arrangement is what gets the money made). 

You can’t get rid of discrimination - or inequality, they're two sides of the same coin - while leaving the rest of the system in place. The whole thing needs to come down, the world needs to change in startling and as yet unimaginable ways, in order for anything like “equality” to be a remotely viable proposition.

The revolutionary potential of feminism is in the fact that it sees, unmasks, explains, analyses and critiques all of the myriad mechanisms that the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy employs in order to make sure that these dualist, antagonistic alignments stay in place. There are of course some superficial changes from time to time. What used to be achieved through out and out coercion - physical and economic - of women into the subordinate role of dependent wife, now continues to be achieved through the blanket propaganda of the beauty industrial and entertainment complexes. Unlike liberalism, which sees this as progress, radicalism (and all real feminism is radical) sees this for what it is: same shit, different century.

This being the case, of course the majority of people find the few feminists who call out the duplicity and pervasiveness of this system aggressive, man-hating, extremist lunatics. If they didn't, we'd be doing something wrong here, frankly.

So when Katy Perry says "I'm not a feminist”, or Joss Whedon does, or Lady Gaga, my reaction is: of course you're not. If you said you were, you'd be lying. Your wealth and success are inextricably dependent on the beauty and entertainment industrial complexes. You are entirely in hock to the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, whether you like to think of yourself as such or not.

So I never try to say to anyone "no wait, you really are a feminist, you just haven't realised it yet" (with the single exception of my sister, but that's a separate blog post). First of all, it's damned patronising. And secondly, it's wrong, as we saw. Anyone who says "I believe in equality but I'm not a feminist" is telling the truth, because a belief in equality is not even a fraction of what it means to really be a feminist.

Sep 11, 2013

On Michael Le Vell, and why arguing about rape is a waste of time

"Anyone making any sort of claim (need not be criminal) has the burden of proof. That's Philosophy 101." So went the crushing, irrefutable logic of some dude's argument on the internet, that legitimate arbiter of things judicial, with regard to the demonstrable guilt of Michael Le Vell's accuser. Her crime? Lying about rape. How do we know she lied? Because he's been "declared innocent".

There is a lot wrong with this so called logic, and a lot of very intelligent women have stepped into the breach and written eloquently on the various flaws in it.

Laura at the F-Word starts us off by pointing out the obvious fact that it's not the victim who's just been on trial - the veracity of her claims were not something the court interested itself in. What the jury decided on was the prosecution didn't make its case beyond reasonable doubt, nothing more, nothing less.

Glosswitch beautifully dismantles the ridiculous false equivalence that posits that accusing someone of rape is as bad as raping someone. I like to call it the "both sides" argument; it's very popular these days in all kinds of contexts, but especially in the news media. Tories entirely funded by millionaire tax evaders? Well, Labour takes some money from the unions! It's exactly the same! Climate change deniers distorting the evidence and using paid-for research? Well, that guy at UEA wrote that dodgy email one time, too! They're all at it! And so on. In the case of rape, the false equivalence serves to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of believing women are lying bitches while being faced with so much evidence of rape and abuse.

Abstract Lucas writes movingly about how hard it is to make a rape complaint, reminding us of the vanishingly small likelihood of anyone, but especially a child, taking that burden on just for shits and giggles. Only a profound ignorance of the system would make anyone bloviate at length about how easy it is to just "cry rape".

Sian ties together the concept of "rape myths" and the fact that there is no correct, appropriate or common way of responding to abuse. Constructing an idealised picture of how a "real" victim would react and then measuring women in that Procrustean bed is just one of the many cruel indignities inflicted on victims of sexual violence; its epistemic value is less than nil.

Lastly for this roundup, Louise Pennington provides some practical solutions to the problem of how to conduct fair trials in an atmosphere in which rape is considered the one crime where the burden of blame is automatically placed on the victim.

As I say, these are all really great pieces of writing. They seek to inform, educate, illuminate and clarify. I think that's really nice, I really do. And for the maybe three and a half people farting out opinions on the matter who aren't yet aware that the number of false accusations is tiny, or that the vast majority of sexual assault goes completely unreported, they're useful and necessary.


Personally, I haven't got the same faith in humanity that my sisters above do. I haven't seen these people carry on on Twitter about how, now that Stuart Hall has been convicted, every rape allegation ever must be correct - even the ones we've been pointedly ignoring for decades. Or that, given how Jimmy Saville was enabled to get away with his industrial scale rape for decades because of his celebrity status, all famous men should be seen as unreliable in principle. Or maybe even just that there's more at stake for the accused, and more reason for them to lie in the first place, so hey, mister "Philosophy 101" logic guy, maybe we should take that into account.

In particular, I haven't seen anyone jumping up and down over Nigel Evans, who resigned from his Parliamentary role today following multiple allegations of serious sexual abuse against him. This is a senior fucking politician here - one of a handful of elected representatives we've entrusted with the running of our country (well, sort of, but you know what I mean). There is some heavy shit being alleged against him right now, by multiple complainants. So where are the "anonimity for rape suspects" brigade in his case? Where are the people bemoaning his ruined reputation? What's so different about his accusers from the run-of-the-mill lying bitches maliciously pulling rape fantasies out of their asses?

What's that you say? His accusers are men? Well fancy that.

I'm all for education and dispelling myths. I just think it's important to recognise that for a lot of people, the "women are lying fantasists" trope is not a belief in itself - it is a means to an end. And that end is to make sure that rape persists. That the key weapon of intimidation and suppression against women remains in excellent working condition. Rape apology and rape denial are absolutely pivotal to the perpetuation of the oppressive status quo, and we mustn't fool ourselves (like some well meaning climate change campaigners do) that if we simply put more info out there, tell the stories just one more time, "educate" a little bit more, we can change people's minds enough for rape to just go away.

This is not about hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of rape apologists are not worth winning. We need to continue working with the CPS, who under Keir Starmer have made some important, if still insufficient, advances. We need to put serious, credible pressure on the police and the Home Office (e.g., by demanding they record the cases of male femicide). We need to change the system such that gradually, making a rape complaint becomes less of a second rape than it is today.

We need political power, in other words; organised, coordinated and mature. Let's go.

Sep 9, 2013

If you want us to care when you're killed, don't be born

The broadsheet Right is suddenly worried about misogyny. It's terrible! cry the respectable pages of the Daily Telegraph. It's dangerous! chimes in Cathy Newman. It's a feminist issue! adds Tom Chivers.

Yeah, alright love. You totes worry about the terrible implications of two non-illegal non-abortions that non-happened as a result of a cockamamie sting op run by the Torygraph, worthy of the swivel eyed creativity of a James O'Keefe or a Lila Rose. Here, have your feminist cookie.

The Telegraph only cares when women are killed in one place: the womb. Zero female fetuses were aborted in the Telegraph investigation. Meanwhile, two actual, already-born, living, what one might call "real" women are murdered by male partners or relatives every. Single. Week. Month in, month out. While you sit there wanking it up about how "worrying" and "dangerous" it is that the CPS won't prosecute doctors for thought crime, actual women are dying.

Has the Telegraph run an in-depth investigation on male violence against women lately? Has Channel 4 done an incisive interview with Karen Ingala-Smith, CEO of nia? 'Cause she's running a campaign to get the Home Office to at least record instances of male femicide, and you would think, wouldn't you, that people who are so concerned about the potential termination of female pregnancies would really care rather a lot about actual women being murdered?

What's that you say? They don't? They're actually using this non-scandal to ramp up opposition to safe and accessible abortion, because they really hate women and are using these fictitious unborn ones to cynically call for changes that would harm them? Well I never.

Glosswitch and Sarah Ditum have written beautifully in the New Statesman about what a cynical, shallow, transparent attempt this whole "controversy" is on women's freedom and well-being. Contrasted with the absolute silence from Hunt, May, Newman, Chivers et al about the relentless march of sex based murder, be it in family, homophobic, transphobic or sex work related contexts, the whole thing is enough to make the gorge rise in my throat. They make me sick, the lot of them. Literally.

Aug 27, 2013

Trans* murder rates - under-reported?

I came across this old tweet today, where the LGBT rights campaigner Peter Thatchell challenged feminist Julie Bindell to condemn the murder of transgendered people:

Now, I want to just say that I personally abhor all gender based violence; I was going to say "equally", but in some ways, the violent murder of a person who aspires to be accepted as a woman is even more chillingly misogynist than the murder of a woman for the crime of already being a woman. In any case, the danger that trans women find themselves in is non-trivial and must be opposed, condemned and mitigated by all means necessary[1].

(For the avoidance of doubt, and for those of us who are more closely involved with Twitter / ask.fm than is good for us: death threats against trans women are vile, hateful expressions of the deepest visceral misogyny. End of discussion.)

Being cussedly fact-based in my thinking though, I was alerted by the infographic Thatchell cites to what seemed to me an under-reporting of the murder rate of trans* people in Europe. If the information contained therein is correct, it strikes at the heart of a key precept of trans* activism, namely that trans people are proportionately much more in danger of male violence than non-trans women.

According to the latest census, there are 56.1 million people in the UK, 28.5 of them women. Of the latter, 172 were victims of homicide in the calendar year of 2012 (not exactly identical to the onfographic's November '11 - November '12 time frame, but analogous). That's 0.0006%
 of all British women.

According to Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch, the proportion of the population that is trans* can be estimated at about 0.08%, which would bring the trans* population to approximately 450,000. One victim of homicide within that groups in that time frame represents 0.000223%.

It's possible that my calculations are wrong, or that Thatchell's numbers are under-reported; but on the face of it it looks like he should be careful what statistics he goes around quoting, because if what he's saying is that trans* people have about the third of the chance of being victims of homicide as non-trans women do, then who should be called upon to condemn violence against whom?

Again, none of this is to dismiss or minimise violence against trans* people, and trans women in particular. But if we're to make head or tail of the thorny debates on this issue currently threatening to upend the boat of the next "wave" of feminism before it's left the harbour, then being careful with our facts is of paramount importance.

A note on Brasil: I know. It's a terrifying, heart-stopping number compared to the rest of the world. What the hell is going on over there?


[1] I also believe that trans* people "really are" the gender they feel they are. Not necessarily that they are identical in every way to all others who were assigned that gender at birth, nor that they should have unrestricted access to any and all fora they wish to be included in; but they genuinely have a claim to their own gender definition and deserve full legal, medical and social recognition as such. This is a set of opinions nicely calibrated to make me popular with exactly no-one, but what can you do.

Aug 21, 2013

The Myth of Shared Girlhood

The below first-hand accounts of sexual victimization of young girls are taken from a sample of 200 submissions to the Everyday Sexism Project from a roughly 10 hour period on June 17th & 18th this year. I implemented a cut-off age of 16 and included only stories with an explicit age mention.

The project currently has over 60,000 distinct entries and has been active since March 27th this year. If we assume the same ratio (7%)  of accounts of girlhood sexual victimization, it now contains approximately 4,200 such testimonies, although the real ratio is likely to be somewhat higher.

This is only a small sample hinting at the magnitude of the problem.
I have walked by men who leered at my twelve year old sister, I've been called a bitch for turning down dances and I had my legs groped by a taxi driver pretending to reach for the clutch. Men have pulled my arms at parties, run their hands between my legs, grabbed my ass and smirked at me as if they were being funny, and not until I turned 20 did I start retaliating. I slapped the last man that grabbed my ass, and I wish I had done the same to all of them.
Was living in Russia when I was about 16. Some drunk 30 year old just picked me up and dragged me into his room while I was screaming NO NO NO. Luckily he was so high I was able to push him off. I didn't come out of the apartment for a week.
The next year a 40 year old I barely knew drove up next to me and pushed me into his car and told me we were going camping, the two of us. I crawled out the window on the other side and ran home.
In 10th Grade during a class, a boy asked me for a hug. I decided to be friendly and give him one.
As I hugged him, I felt hands on my rear and immediately pulled back. I asked if he groped me, looking disgusted. He responded with a 'no' his face mixed with laughter and mockery.
I was only 15.
15 yrs old at a small family fair & local music festival with 2 friends, standing in a line listening to the 3 gross and disgusting adult males (I refuse to call them men) discussing how amazing my tits were.
On my way home from school as a fifteen year old a man approached me and told me I was looking 'fit'. he said he knew me and that I had been at his house at the weekend but I didn't remember it because I was so drunk. He told me that I had been there with him and implied that we had done something sexually.He asked me to come back to his house. I said no but he started following me. I had never been to his house. 
During my junior year of high school everyday upon entering my math class I would be greeted with profane and suggestive things yelled at me by a group of boys. My male math teacher was directly in ear shot and never acknowledged or reprimanded any of the students but instead pretended not to hear and continued to write the day's lesson on the board. Their yells hurt but his silence confirmed that I should expect this as normal. 
I was followed home and the man groped my thigh the lift/elevator. I managed to call the police and they caught him after they watched the tapes of the security cameras. I'm 14.
My ride to middle school also had some high school students in the van. A junior year high school boy would try to sit in my lap each day and I would have to slide away to avoid stares. One day he tried to do what he did everyday and I punched him on the behind. He screamed, "Who did this?" No one responded and he sat far away from me that day. Never came near me again.
When I was 14, I was walking to a restaurant with my older sister (18 at the time), and it was summer so I was wearing shorts and she was in a sundress. On the way there we got honked at. And on the way back, some man yelled something along the lines of "I'd hit that!" out of his window at us. For both things to happen within an hour of each other was astonishing and terrifying.
I was 14 years old and in school. Due to a scheduling fluke, I didn't have lunch with my class like I should have, so I sat alone at a table and read a book while I ate. On the way out of the lunch room one day, someone slapped my ass, way too hard to be an accident. Because a hundred or more students were rushing out the doors at once, I looked behind me and had no idea who it was. But I strongly suspected it was one of the boys in a laughing group. They were all delinquent kids who had been held back once or twice and were several years older than me.
I still fantasize about what I would have said to that creep.
A man backed me into the corner, felt up my inner thighs, and told me he wanted to "make love to me". I was fourteen on a church mission trip.
I was walking down a fairly public street and behind me some guy shouted, "Hey how much you cost?" I ignored it because that's apparently what you're supposed to do and he caught up behind me and forced my hand onto his erection as he grabbed my penis too. I was 14.
When on holiday last year, a cleaner from the hotel took a shining to me.
One day when I was riding down the elevator alone he got right up to my ear and whispered "you look very pretty today". Not wanting to be disrespectful I said thank you and went on my way. He kept bumping into me and hanging round this huge hotel waiting for me.
One afternoon there's a knock at my door and he's there, he asks me to go out to the town with him for the evening and when I say no he carries on asking me. He explains he can't date me during his working hours because it's against hotel regulation but he sees no problem once he clocks off. I keep telling him no. He then asks for a kiss, and when I say no, he asks for a picture, and when I say no, he asks me not to leave him at the door.
I ask him his age and he tells me he's 27. I was 14 at the time, and look about 18 max. 
I was at an amusement park. Since it was over 95 degrees, I was wearing shorts like any sensible person. I had climbed the stairs to a tall slide, and after I came back down, a friend that was waiting for me at the bottom told me that the ride attendant had taken a picture at an inappropriate angle of my bum ss I climbed the stairs as well as my breasts when I had turned my head. I was only 13 years old.
I was taking extra German classes when I was 13, outside of school. The teacher, a man in his 50's, repeatedly suggested that I should be eager to earn extra credit (blowjobs) if I was a good student. Mind you, no-one else was allowed this 'privilege' and of course the 'opportunity' was never offered in front of any other students.
13. I went to a summer camp and there was this counselor and he kept staring at all of the girls boobs. None of the teachers noticed so they didnt do anything, but it made all of us uncomfortable. I mean, we are 13 year olds! 
Age 12/13/14 a boy 1 year older than me at school would grab and slap my ass and say "alright darling". When I told my family about it they just laughed.
My ass is not public property and you have no right to touch it.
At age 12 the Recreation Director of a senior's home at which I am a volunteer offers me a ride home. He drives past my home and stops the car. He insists that I want to kiss him. I insist that I don't. After a short time and very fortunately he puts the car in reverse and drops me off without further incident.. 
I couldn't have been more than about 12 or 13 years old, and I was in the grocery store with my mother. 2 men came up to us and asked her how much money she wanted for me. I didn't realize until I was much older what they had meant. Afterwards my mother never spoke about it to me or anyone else as far as I know.
I have a friend who is younger than me, though she looks older than she is. I met her in town a few weeks ago. She was very shaken up when I met up with her. She told me about what happened. While she was waiting outside the library, a man approached her and asked her for her number. She told him no, but he persisted and asked her four or five times. He kept on saying how he liked her legs. She lied to him and told him that she was 16 years old and had a boyfriend. This man, 25+ years old creepily said "That's alright." When she tried to escape him and walk into the library, he blocked the door, but eventually she got past him. She told me not to tell any of the adults, so they wouldn't freak out.
Later that night, she saw him around multiple times, in the teen section of the library where he was told to leave, and on the streets. My friend is eleven years old.
I was 11 an shopping in Primark when a man who must've been over 50 came up to me and asked me if I wanted to come with him and pointed outside the shop. All the while he was looking at me up and down, almost undressing me with his eyes. I couldn't think of anything to say to make him go away. Thankfully my mum came back around the corner just then and he got scared and ran away. 
As a 11 year old in my football kit walking home from school I turned round to see a 20 something man down an alley masturbating at me. I was so scared I ran home in hysterics, terrified that this man was going to rape me although at that age I didn't even really know what that meant.
It was the end of class and I was bending down to put something away like the teacher asked me. While bent over, something smacked my butt. Hard. I jerked up to see my male classmate, who I knew well, holding a wooden ruler in his hand and laughing as he stroked it. This was 6th grade. We were 11 years old.
I was walking home from school when two boys in their late teens were barking at me from the back of a truck. I was 10.
My cousin, 14 at the time, took me to my bedroom. He took off his pants and told me, a nine year old girl, to take my clothes off. I started to cry, I was confused and so scared. He pulled his pants back up and told me to be quiet. He had the audacity to tell me, a nine year old girl, that it was my fault he felt this way. I believed him for a very, very long time.
Summer of my 9 years old, our class just had a water gun fight in the park. I was drying my shirt with the hand dryer in the women's bathroom. Adult guy (maybe 40?) steps into the doorway, watches me, comments on my drying technique. He comes in and puts my still-wet shirt back on, then he gropes my breasts and between my legs. A teacher came in to fetch me and he ran. I never told anyone because I always believed "nothing really happened" and that it was my fault for being there, drying my clothes, "letting" him, not giving a police statement. But the fact is that something did happen, and none of it was my fault. None.
When I was about 9 years old I was staying round a friends house, lying in a campbed next to her. Her brother who is a year or so older walks into the room and sits on the end of my bed. He starts touching my feet and up my legs, as I pull away he is there again. I am very ticklish so I was laughing through it, but I was also scared and absolutely did not want him to get anywhere near my crotch. His sister sat there and watched the whole time, saying nothing.
When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I was waiting in the car for my mom when a man pulled up next to our car, opened his door to adjust his seatbelt, shut it, & then re-open it to reveal his half-naked body to me. He began to masturbate. He then shut the food and drove off. I never told my mom. I'm 28 now & this still creeps me out.
The first time I was sexually harassed I was 8 years old. A boy in my class told me that he was going to force me into the corner and give me a "good fucking" because I was "too cute". I never told anyone because I believed it was my fault. I am now 17 years old and have been harassed lots of other times and that moment is still the clearest.

All rights reserved to The Everyday Sexism Project. I redacted names to help further preserve the writers' testimony, however the testimonies themselves are now published and visible on the main website and in some cases the US website. It is not technically possible at this time to link individually to entries on the main site.