Aug 20, 2009

Sexism and poverty

There's a great article in the London Review of Books about the confluence of identity politics and neoliberalism. The basic thesis is one that I find difficult to disagree with: making society more diverse is not the same as making it more equal.

To elaborate: diversity is the word we use to describe the person-profile make up of different groups. So, for example, in Parliament, such and such a percentage of MPs are female, so many are Asian, a certain amount are gay, disabled, etc. The rest are all able bodies white men, who are seen as the default and only complete embodiment of the idea of "human being".

So, diversity is the measure of how close any given group - a company board, a school, a political institution - is in its ethnic, gender and cultural make-up to the whole of the population. Obviously a lack of diversity is near to impossible to defend: unless you turn yourself inside out with sophistry and made up "data" to prove that female, disabled, black or foreign people are somehow naturally stupider than white men, there's no explanation for their lack of representation.

Equality is something a litle different. You get different types of equality: equality of opportunity (beloved of New Labour and other neoliberal movements), equality of outcome (the progressive, socialist ideal), and economic equality, or equality of income or wealth. As it happens, the UK isn't doing too well on any of these scales compared to the rest of Europe, but Michaels concentrates on the interaction between diversity and equality of income.

Specifically, his main argument is that racial/gender equality serves neoliberal profit maximisation interests, and that it has been used as a smoke screen to distract from the wider picture of economic inequality and the social ills occasioned by it. It's a compelling and illuminating argument, and I find it hard to disagree when Michaels says things like:

The focus of [...] outrage [...] is not the fact that some people can afford the chocolates and others can’t, but that the ones who can are mean to the ones who can’t. And this represents something of an innovation in left politics. While everyone has always disapproved of adding insult to injury, it’s traditionally been the right that’s sought to treat the insult as if it were the injury.

I'm not a big fan of classism, or in its more old fashioned name, snobbery; but if I could eliminate either snobbery or poverty, I know which one I'd go for. Where I part ways with Michaels is in his attitude towards sexism and how it interacts with capitalism.

To be fair, though he lumps anti-racism and anti-sexism together for the purposes of making his point, the majority of the article concentrates on race relations and not gender politics; I get an inkling that that is because Michaels realises that his argument vis a vis institutionalised sexism is weak. He concludes:

If the downside of the politics of anti-discrimination is that it now functions to legitimate the increasing disparities not produced by racism or sexism, the upside is the degree to which it makes visible the fact that the increase in those disparities does indeed have nothing to do with racism or sexism.

I'm not a race relations scholar and I leave the question of how economic inequality and racism interact to others. But it is categorically untrue that inequality is not the product of sexism, and the data simply does not support such a breezy dismissal of anti-sexism (put less politely, feminism) as economically toothless identity politics.

According to the Rowntree Foundation's Poverty Website, women are only slightly more likely than men to live in low income households - in other words, to be poor - than men. Among those, single retired women and lone parents are the most likely to do so; luckily however, it is in those two groups that the gap between women and men has been narrowing most quickly. This is good news.

Mysteriously though, a staggering 31% of children are likely to live in low income households; a dramatically higher proportion than either women or men.

Huh? Are kids forming their own little minimum wage communes now, or what?

The answer lies in the fact that these numbers are absolute, not proportional. They are calculated in terms of total income per household, not relative income per household member. Which means that for every 1 single mother with 3 kids living in poverty, there are 3 children living in poverty - and the majority of single parents in the UK are still, despite media scaremongering, mothers.

Breaking the statistic down further, if a man lives in a "household" with an income of less than £10K p.a., or the aforementioned woman with 3 kids lives in a "household" with the same income, he still has 4 times as much real income as any of teh people in her and her children. This example, though, is not very solid - because in reality the woman is highly unlikely to have the same level of income as hte man in the first place.

And that is where sexism comes in. Women still earn approximately 85% of what men do - but for low earning women, those in part time or unstable work who struggle the most to stay above the povery line, the pay gap is an appaling 33%.

So, more women are bringing children up on their own; on average they earn less and have more mouths to feed; and if they can't work full time because some of their children are small, then the two effects are likely to be amplified many times over.

How does this tie back with the economic inequality issue? Well, the one thing that everybody seems to agree on when tlaking about social mobility is that there isn't any. Rich parents are still overwhelmingly more likely to raise rich children. Children who grow up poor are crushingly more likely to spend the rest of their lives in the cycle of poverty. And more children are raised poor because of sexism than anythig else.

Parenting equality, pay equality, status equality between traditional "male" and "female" professions; these are all essential to closing the poverty gap and improving that GINI coefficient. And yes, diversity, too - as we are currently seeing with Harriet Harman and Hillary Clinton, women in power are much more likely to emphasise women's issues than males are. I'm with ya that the left should get its economic priorities right already, and stop pandering to pampered upper middle class paranoiacs; but if you think that means that feminists can hang up their boxing gloves, you're dead on the nose wrong. Because on economic reform and financial equality as on anything else, if men do what they've done, we'll get what we've got. The patriarchy causes poverty, and the patriarchy has to go.

Aug 17, 2009

Boo-hoo for the world, Big Bad Hillary is being mean to it

OMG, y'all, Hillary is so mean! Cause when somebody is asking you what your hubby thinks about your job, you answer, biyatch! What's this getting uppity and sniping back about? She's like, got no empathy, y'all!

See, travelling half way across the world into a war zone to urge the humane treatment of half the population of the world - the half that, in this particular beauty spot, is having their very bodies forcibly penetrated not only by assorted and often ganged up penises, but gun muzzles, razor blades, broken bottles and the AIDS virus - is totally not empatheitc. No, taking time out of your busy State Secretarial schedule to answer rude, fuckwitted questions is empathetic. Bake some cookies already!

Judith Warner at the NYT has a great article up, attacking the trivialisation of Secretary of State Clinton in the US media, and I find echoes of it relevant to the UK; because US issues become British issues so quickly, of course, but also because we've just had our own round of abject trivialisation - of Harriet Harman and her more limited but nevertheless excellent initiative to combat violence against women and girls.

A lot of the commentary I've seen on both topics in the last few weeks tended to focus on the journalistic inanity of this tone of coverage, as well as the potential political implications (e.g. long term undermining of Secretary Clinton could lead to a wider destabilisation both of her mission and of the Obama administration). But that, to me, dismisses the ridicule, obfuscation, misrepresentation and trivialisation of high ranking female political figures as an Aw Shucks side effect of the boys' club that is journalism, and its lazy attitude towards playing into the public's basest prejudices. And to do that is to miss the point.

It's significant that Harriet's fuckability and Hillary's love handles made their respective appearances around the time when both of them were publicizing significant initiatives to improve the lot of women and protect them from violence, cruelty, torture and rape. I was actually surprised when the Mail - a publication that I thought had long lost the power to ever lower itself further in my eyes - didn't ridicule Harman's intiative. It actually got angry about it. It really, really scared and outraged the Mail that government is trying to interfere in the God-given right of upstanding citizens to teach their children on the one hand to beat, and the other to take beatings. Educating children to eschew violence was framed as being fundamentally, invasively evil.

It's the same kind of non-logic that underpins the widespread outrage in the US at the suggestion that people could be given access to better healthcare. Preventing the suffering of others is being read as an unforgivable intrusion into basic democratic liberties. The operative word in this, as in all discussions about welfare reform and the protection of vulnerable groups, is other.

There's a bunch of feminist discourse dealing with "Othering", and a lot of it can be a bit obscure and intimidating to the newcomer. But to put it very plainly, albeit in my own somewhat unqualified words, Othering a person, or a group of people, is the mental process of redrawing your emotional boundaries such that empathy no longer extends to them. If you can place yourself in the shoes of an 8 year old child who has been gang raped and mutilated, or in the shoes of a person dying of cancer because their insurance company won't pay for chemo, and at least somewhat enter into their state of pain, fear, confusion and despair, there's just no way that you won't want to do something to help. At the barest minimum you will not stand in the path of others who wish to help, especially if the help comes at no cost to you.

But doing this is painful; empathy entails at least a tiny psychic wound inflicted by the imagined anguish of the empathees. So to some, the emotionally cogent solution is to imagine that those people - the mass raped, the uninsured, the victims and addicts and punch bags of soceity - don't exist, or can't possibly exist, or possibly do exist but deserve their self-inflicted suffering, or, in the most extreme cases, are simply so alien and un-human as to bear no meaningful relationship to one, possess no hook onto which one can start fastening one's empathy. Women, to go back to the feminist theory bit of this post, are the quintessential "other", which is why when we talk of mass rape in Liberia or family killings in Pakistan we don't talk about human rights - we talk about "women's issues". So insiduous is the othering of women that we quite casually dismiss them from membership of the human race on a daily basis.

There's a trick to this emotional equivalent of placing one's hands over one's ears and shouting "lalala nobody's listening!", and trivilisation by the media is central to it. Concentrating on Secretary Clinton's wardrobe or Mrs Harman's accent starts a feedback loop that, properly nurtured, provides whole swathes of people with the near-mystical ability to believe that the most heinous, the most dehumanising, the most abhorrent and disgusting and appaling outrages against one's fellow human beings aren't really anything to lose much sleep over. Because if Harriet Harman is frivolous, then all of her prattling about spousal abuse and the rape conviction rates is frivolous, too. If Hillary Clinton is frivolous, then little girls in Africa having their insides torn up by bayonettes, being "circumcised" by marauding soldiers before being deemed clean enough to rape, are frivolous too. And shame on these women politicians for wasting our time with them!

That, friends, is real lack of empathy. A couple of tetchy sentences in response to a silly question at a press conference really don't allow Secretary Clinton to aspire to such high achievements.

Aug 14, 2009

Victim blaming - the logical conclusion

(Via Jezebel)

An upmarket hotel in the US is accusing a woman who was raped at gun point in its parking lot of having "failed to exercise due care for her own safety and the safety of her children".

The rapist attacked the woman from behind while she was strapping her two small children into their car seats. He forced her to undress and raped her on the back seat in front of the children. He pointed his gun at the children and threatened to sexually assault one of them.

The rapist was apprehended, tried, and sent to prison for 20 years. Neither judicially nor morally is there any doubt who is 100% responsible for this inhuman violation of another human being's dignity and personhood.

We talk a lot about victim blaming and how prevalent it is in our society, and it's often difficult to explain to people who are blinded by patriarchal assumptions about gender what "victim blaming" actually is, or how, e.g., asking questions like "why did she take him back?" or "why was she walking alone at night?" constitutes victim blaming behaviour in the first place.

But this is an absolutely clear cut case. The Marriott here is totally adamant that the rape was the woman's fault, or at least that she bears a lot of the responsibility for it (presumably they're not deluded enough to claim that she raped herself). They are, explicitly and unashamedly, blaming the victim.

They're not saying "young women are more prone to attack, she should have been more careful", because she was 40 when the rape happened.

They're not saying "she shouldn't have been flirting with him", because this was one of those tiny minority of random stranger rapes.

They're not saying "she shouldn't have been alone in a dangerous neighbourhood", because it happened in their own 4-star garage parking lot.

And yet, when she sued them (for an earth shattering $15,000, no less) for failing to provide adequate security on their premises and for ignoring previous reports about the rapist hovering in the area and harassing women, thereby leaving him free to rape, they turned around and quite clearly stated that it's all her fault for not making "proper use of her senses".

How can this be? How can someone even take precautions against a random crime? How do they propose women parking in their garage "mitigate their damages", as they put it?

Well, presumably, by not brazenly existing in the world while in possession of a vagina.

That is what I'd like people to take away from this: every time you think, or hear someone say "you know, women can do a lot to prevent rape by doing/not doing XYZ", think about this woman, whom a major corporation is lambasting as the author of her own misery.

Because saying "don't drink and flirt with men" and "don't wear short skirts" is bullshit. The rules won't protect you. Long skirts won't protect you. Secured parking lots with guards and cameras won't protect you.

Women don't get themselves raped. Men rape them. Anything that says otherwise is victim blaming.

ETA: Shakesville has a list of emails & URLs where you can contact the hotel chain and its owners to let them know what you think about this shit.

Aug 10, 2009

IVF and other property crimes

On Monday, 20 June, 2005, one Professor Ledger ("a leading UK fertility expert"), via the BBC, warned of a "reproductive time bomb" threatening the UK if women continued to put off having children until their late 30's or early 40's.

Last Sunday, he proclaimed the bomb detonated from the front page of the
Observer. A staggering, frightening, threatening, unsustainable number of women were forced to resort to IVF.

What do you mean, exactly how many? This is a newspaper front page article, people. It's not in the business of reporting actual information.

Anyway, you don't really need to know the numbers[1]. You can tell that this is a serious problem by the seriousness of the solutions Prof. Ledger proposes for it. Four years ago, he was entertaining such wishy-washy ideas as career breaks and financial incentives to enable women to have children earlier in life without jeopardizing their financial futures. Now, however, the situation is so much more severe that the advice of the good doctor is to subject women to an MOT.

An MOT is for cars, not people, you say? Well, where did you get the radical notion that women are people from? What are you, some kind of feminist?

[1] Oh, all right. Here they are:

35 thousand women are estimated to receive IVF treatment each year. That is 0.1 percent of the women in the UK. Obviously, a calamity of epic proportions that is going to overwhelm the NHS despite the fact that 80% of these women pay for it privately. Whatevs, numbers, right?

1.43% of babies are born as a result of IVF. Clearly if we don't do something about to reduce our reliance on it, the population decline will wipe Great Britain off the map and Britannia will no longer rule the clammy North Atlantic waves. If that sounds a little faux-jingoistic to you, then I'm sorry but I don't know how else to treat such patently preposterous alarmism about the fertility rates at the same time as banging the drum for immigration control.

The birth rate in Britain women is just over 2.0 children per woman. That's a pretty respectable replacement rate. At a time when we are being warned of unsustainable population growth through "migration", keeping the population more or less stable sounds like a pretty good idea, no?

What's this I hear you say? Women are machines for making nice white middle class babies? Surely not! Next you'll be suggesting that we limit their rights to terminate pregnancies and generally decide when and how to have children for themselves...
Oh, wait.

The birth rate has been steadily increasing in the last 20 years. It is currently at its highest rate since the early seventies. So is, however, anxiety about the loss of mass control over the female population, and manufactured panic about the decline of "Britishness". Coincidence? You decide.

32.5% of couples with fertility issues have those because there's something wrong with the man. It's the exact same number - 32.5% - for women. In other words, the medical problems are pretty evenly spread across both sexes. But men are not exhorted to submit themselves to the sort of invasion of privacy that women should put up with. Because human rights are for humans, not females. Duh.


As an aside and a general comment on the state of print media, most of the above numbers were present in a graphic side-bar accompanying the print version of the article. So the Observer staff were running a front page that expressly contradicted their own research. That this journalistic FAIL involved a) science and b) women is exactly no surprise to me whatsoever in any way shape or form.

That this appalling piece of regurgitated misogynist propaganda make the inside pages of
The Sheffield Telegraph is, in some ways, almost comfortingly predictable. But the front page of the (self confessed) most liberal Sunday newspaper in the land? "MOTs for women"? You shittin' me, or are all of your brain-enabled editors currently sunning themselves in Tuscany? Fuckwits.

Aug 6, 2009

Hate-mongering tabloid in misogynist shocker

Look, people. Yeah, the Daily Mail seem to have jumped the shark with this one. Yes, their opposition to the monstrous notion that teaching children to avoid violence is ridiculous, and is bordering on evil.

But seriously. Did anyone expect any different?

People are always like "feminists are hysterical, they're overreacting, most of the goals of feminism have been reached, you're jumping at shadows, why do you always have to see sexism everywhere" blah blah blah.

Answer: because it's like, there, mmkay?

People hate women. Lots and lots of people hate women. They think that women deserve to be hit. They think that women deserve to be raped. They think that women should be punished for being so vile as to deserve to be hit and raped by being made to stay with their abusers and carry tehir rapists' babies to term. These people call themselves "proponents of family values", "pro-life activists" and "men's rights activists". Also, quite often, "nice guys".

So somebody at the Mail was on holiday and the temp forgot to keep the language sifficiently coded, allowing the mask of concerned citizenship to slip and show the naked loathing below. Big deal.

You wanna get really mad, check out this "scientists", or maybe I should say Scientist(tm), who thinks that
feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil. Cause he gets paid - out of your taxes - to teach this hate speech to young people at the London School of Economics.