Jan 22, 2019

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


of gender in any individual’s sense of self.

-- Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 10, 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 20, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 16, 2018

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


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

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

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

I.

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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


Feb 15, 2017

How do they know who to kill?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 4, 2016

"TERF" was always going to go mainstream


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 28, 2016

The Olympics, Maria Miller, and sleeping under bridges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


OK? OK.

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

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

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

Jan 6, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 13, 2015

Jen

 
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.