Oct 23, 2014

What is sex?

The word sex has many meanings. From the OED: 
a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.
b. In extended use, esp. as the third sex . A (notional) third division of humanity regarded as analogous to, or as falling between, the male and female sexes; spec. that consisting of:  (a) eunuchs or transsexuals;  †(b) humorously clergymen (obs.);  (c) homosexual people collectively.
2 Quality in respect of being male or female, or an instance of this; the state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; possession or membership of a sex.
a. With regard to persons or animals.
b. With regard to plants
a. With the. The female sex. Now arch. or literary.
a. The distinction between male and female, esp. in humans; this distinction as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences; (in later use esp.) relations and interactions between the sexes; sexual motives, instincts, desires, etc.
b. Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with) : to engage in sexual intercourse (with).
For the purposes of this post, we are going to ignore the OED’s definitions 1b and 3a+b, as it these are pertinent mostly to literary as opposed to everyday usage. Having done so, we are left with four main definitions:
1. A division into two groups by reproductive function
2. Membership of one of these two groups
3. The social and cultural distinctions stemming from such membership
4. Actually bumping uglies
OK, let’s go ahead and ignore number 4 above too. Not that the definition of what constitutes sex is uncontentious, but it’s not the subject here. It is the subject here, and I think you should go ahead and read that cause it’s good. But I digress (already!).

So we’re left with three things to unpack: what it means to declare a division into two groups; what it means to be a member of one of those groups; and what it means to create or be subject to social and cultural distinctions based on these two groups.

Sep 16, 2014

Radfem panic: when demands for inclusivity are a cover for moral disgust

‘70% of communication is nonverbal’. I really hate that cliché, because I’m a words person. To me, carefully chosen and logically constructed verbal arguments should take precedence over all of the attendant (and extraneous) signals like tone, posture and facial expression. That’s what I like about the internet: it strips people’s mannerisms away and leaves them with only words at their disposal. It comes with all kinds of problems for interpersonal situations, but in the absence of trolling and abuse has been fantastically useful for thought, discussion, argument and idea exchange. I’ve always thought that was a good thing. I never had reason to doubt that the affect I’m missing on-line mostly conveys information that is of no interest to me as someone who is primarily interested in analysing ideas, not personalities. So it came as rather a surprise to me to encounter a really powerfully emotional, non-verbal situation, which translated to a strong intellectual insight occasioned by a person’s affect and not their words or arguments.

I was on a panel discussing women’s spaces at the FWSA conference 'Rethinking Sisterhood' last weekend, along with my friends and sometimes co-activists Sian, Helen and Shabana. All brought some really valuable insights into the question of women-only organising and the possibilities for interpreting and enacting sisterhood in that context; I won’t get into them here, but do follow the link to Sian's blog. The part of the conversation relevant to this post came relatively late in the session, when an audience member raised the question of trans inclusion: does the panel think that women-only spaces should be open to all self-identifying women, or not?

Well. You can just about imagine nobody wanted to touch that question with a fricking barge pole. We all know what happens, right? Either what you say is interpreted as being bigoted, transphobic and exclusionary, or it gets interpreted as anti-woman, patriarchy appeasing and callous. No middle ground, no way of pleasing everybody, and frankly a lot of the time no way of pleasing anyone at all. So there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling as we all tried to think of a way to not let the issue completely derail the remaining part of the session, and in the end I offered the following observation:

The important point, for me, about exclusion and inclusion in safe spaces, is not so much who they include and who they exclude, but that, as feminists, we keep ourselves obliged to the principle of consent. What that means is that even if a group of women wants to exclude us, on any grounds whatsoever, however spurious those may seem to us, our first duty as feminists is to respect their boundaries and not try to breach them or cause them to be breached.

I illustrated my argument by putting up my hand in a sort of “Stop!” gesture, palm out towards my audience, and saying: “the magic (i.e. feminist politics) doesn’t happen on this side of the hand or on that side of the hand. The magic happens at the hand: praxis is saying ‘no’ and having it respected”.

On the whole the argument was well received; though at least one radical feminist in the audience thought that this was a fudge and an insufficiently direct engagement with what she saw as the real underlying question: ‘what/who is a woman?’. The question of what is prior, definition or action, is a complex one and one I think that is being worked out as praxis within feminist communities rather than ever being resolvable by pure reason. So it will remain unaddressed here. What I wanted to get to was a particularly powerful response from one other member of the audience.

This woman (I’m going to call her Angela) opened her statement by describing her own emotional state: she said that she was very upset, that she was surprised by the level of her own emotional reaction to this issue. Angela described the physical symptoms of the reaction to us: her legs were, she said, jelly, her heart was beating, she felt flushed and panicky. She was basically telling us (I think mostly me personally, but I might be being a bit self-centred there) that our words have induced some kind of trauma response in her, a fully-fledged psychic distress event. She then went on to say she simply can’t understand how I could be so lacking in empathy, that I could reject someone out of my space who wants to be there is she is claiming fellowship with me as a woman. She also said that she finds my forbidding, stopping hand ‘incredibly aggressive’.

My first reaction was to be irritated: here I am, trying to make a careful argument for something I think needs to be calmly talked about and discussed, and this woman is trying to one-up me, to exploit her own obvious distress by manipulating my emotions. How illogical! How childish! How, well, rude! But later, in that over-intellectualising way I have, I couldn’t help thinking and trying to really understand what just happened in that room.

To explain what I think did happen, and in fact does happen a lot in discussions about lesbian separatism, radical feminism, women only spaces and other politics of women’s autonomy, I need to refer to three concepts: moral disgust, the uncanny valley, and gay panic.

The first of those is quite a familiar concept. We’ll take as a guide the definition proposed by Michael Hauskeller in a 2006 paper: “the expression of a very strong moral disapproval that cannot fully be captured by argument”. Liberals pride themselves on their low levels of moral disgust, in particular in relation to the sexual practices of others. This is why we tend to conceptualise the objections of the right to certain things like homosexuality as “phobias” – irrational fears stemming from an underlying moral disgust. It’s also why the “phobia” frame has so successfully, and without any problematizing interrogation that I could see, migrated to be applied inside the social justice left, in terms like transphobia, whorephobia, fatphobia, femmephobia and so on.

But here was a person literally, in every physical sense of the word, exhibiting a phobic reaction. Angela was terrified by me, terrified of my implacable “Stop!” And much like conservative activists seeking to criminalise or marginalise homosexual relationships, she was using the very viscerality of her own reaction as a strong progressive/liberal moral argument: you have upset me, therefore I am right. What was going on?

To explain that let’s look at the other two concepts: the uncanny valley and gay panic. The first comes from the world of humanoid robotics. Researchers working with robots found that people react emotionally to with high levels of comfort to robots that look completely non-human, somewhat non-human, and absolutely believably human. But at the point on the scale where robots exhibit almost-but-not-quite believably human features, there is a dramatic dip in the levels of comfort people experience (the ‘valley’ of the name). There are a lot of theories as to what could be the reason for this, and no conclusive explanation, but that shouldn’t concern us here; all I want to point to is the discomfort associated with confronting an object that doesn’t fall neatly into one of two categories (machine/human), exhibiting insufficient characteristics of both but not seeming to be fully either. This concept can be useful in thinking about reactions to trans people and the different ways people in general view drag queens or pantomime dames (obviously not female and therefore not triggering discomfort), passing trans women (completely female-looking and therefore not triggering discomfort even when we know they are trans), and non-passing trans women and cross dressers (not quite fitting into either definitely-male or definitely-female category and therefore the focus of a lot of the hostility and discomfort from the general population). It’s a hypothesis that needs testing, more a hunch of mine than a proven phenomenon of course, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

Lastly, ‘gay panic’ is a legal device employed (sometimes successfully) in the defense of men who commit violent crimes against gay people. The contention is that when discovering someone is gay (or transgendered – the use of this defense has transferred to the category of hate crime against trans people too), some people, in practice men, are overcome by an uncontrollable sense of panic, that functions like temporary insanity and drives them to react violently and seek to destroy the cause of their panic by beating or killing that individual. In essence this defense legitimises violence based on moral disgust, claiming that its visceral power is such that it can lead to irresistible defensive (and therefore aggressive) urges. Why these men don’t just run away if they’re scared, don’t ask me – I don’t think it’s a very convincing argument at all, rather an excuse to make male violence seem inevitable and unavoidable (what else is new etc.).

I think when liberal feminists and trans activists talk about transphobia, they are accusing radical feminists of a type of ‘trans panic’, a desire to enact violence on or at least distance themselves from trans women based on a moral disgust associated with the uncanniness of their sometimes ambiguous presentation. I think this is a mistake: there is, as I was saying above, a rational argument to be made for the need for female only spaces in all kinds of different situations, and radical feminists are seeking to make that argument, rather than simply deny trans people full rights and humanity out of a culpable, in the progressive worldview, sense of repugnance. I think that mistake leads people to respond to radical feminist argument the way Angela did: we react with ‘radfem panic’, a kind of moral disgust that ‘cannot fully be captured by argument’, but just is.

Why? What about women seeking to define, defend and police their own social and sexual boundaries causes that visceral, panicky reaction? It seems such an innocuous thing to ask: just leave us these small spaces. Go on with your lives, think, write, organise, work alongside us, ally with us, but respect our demand for some spaces where we would like to be alone. I mean, put like that, it seems completely incomprehensible to refuse, doesn’t it? Who else but women would be denied a small private space to discuss their experiences of childhood sexual trauma, for example? What can even be gained from breaching those boundaries and enforcing unwelcome inclusion in those spaces?
Welp, here’s what I think: I think (and I know this sounds a bit grandiose, but I’ve had a Big Emotions sort of weekend) that the argument between radical and liberal feminists about the inclusion of trans women in women-only spaces boils down to Angela’s reaction to my hand saying “Stop!” And the reason that happens is that the non-compliant woman falls, for many of us, into the uncanny valley of gender, just as much as the non-passing trans woman does. The woman who insists:

“I am not permeable, penetrable, all-containing. I have a border, a definition, a limit to my physical and psychic self which you are not allowed to enter. I contain an authentic subjectivity to which you are not privileged. I get to decide who to empathise with and who to reward with my nurture and my effort; you do not get to claim them as your due. I have an “I”, a real and embodied experience which belongs only to me, which is understood only by me, which I insist must be controlled only by me. I am as fully human as a man. I am a person, and I demand you respect my personhood by respecting my right to set boundaries. Thou. Shalt. Not. Pass.

That woman is a monster of sorts, an aberration for which we have no language. She is uncanny; she is neither a man nor fully a woman, for to be a woman is to be the opposite of all of the above. To be a woman is to be permeable, accommodating, open, inclusive. Femininity is inclusion. The aggressive hand raised in a gesture of prohibition is the antithesis of femininity, and to see someone like me, who for all other intents and purposes looks and acts like a woman, enact that transgression, is disorienting and potentially frightening. All the more frightening when many women, whole groups of them, communities of women stand up and say: no more. We shall not contain. This is our space and we get to say who comes and goes here.

None of the above pertains necessarily to the hoary “are trans women women or not” debate. Who knows what a woman is? I sure don’t. A more badly defined concept hardly exists in the history of Western thought, mostly because for at least the last 3 millennia it was not considered worth bothering with. Everybody knew what a woman was: she was that formless Other that contains as its very function, the repository and source of all life, passive and mute in her fecundity. She has no right to ownership, because her borderlessness lets all property slip through and out. She has no right to know, because she cannot control what thoughts flow into her and what thoughts emanate. She has no right to say who comes and goes in her body and on her body and out of her body; her body’s function is only to receive and contain. She can only feel, and include.

When it turns out that other views are available, is it really a surprise that those views cause ‘rad-panic’?

Aug 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 8, 2014

A woman's work is never done

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

Apr 3, 2014

Patriarchy cannot be Breached: Normalising nudity in a pornified world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 6, 2014

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

Dear Paris,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 17, 2014

What gender is and what gender isn’t


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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