We need to talk about gender

When, exactly, is it OK to talk about gender? Obviously we talk gender all the time, speaking in its tongue, following its script; but when are we allowed to talk about it? A friend decided to tackle a Waterstones manager recently about the fact that every single colouring book in the shop was a gendered one: My First Feminine Mystique Colouring Book for Girls, The Boys’ Colouring Book for Self-Determining Humans, that sort of thing, identify the side you belong to and stay inside the lines.

Don’t you think you’ve got a responsibility to offer more than this to children, asked my friend. Not at all, countered the manager: this is just how boys and girls are. And it ended with the manager accusing my friend of being “on a crusade to change basic biology” – as if a preference for pictures of princesses or cars were a secondary sexual characteristic, like hair distribution or vocal range.

Of course, this is nonsense: children do not just happen to grow up conforming to the social expectations that go with the kind of body they have. They are taught, insistently, with a mix of cajoling, denial, example and punishment that can be more or less explicit but is always ongoing. (In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine describes the efforts of two married researchers to bring up their children without gender stereotypes: even finding a bedtime story became a nightmare of Tippex and careful corrections.)

Any system so embedded must serve a purpose, and there’s a clear hierarchy: man over woman, boy over girl. This isn’t a valuation error whereby femininity has been inadvertently priced lower than masculinity, and we can’t rectify it with a market adjustment that declares “man” and “woman” equal but distinct categories: it’s how gender is supposed to work, a patriarchal innovation that trains boys in activity and girls in passivity to keep the breeding stock in line.

It’s a pro-choice truism that abortion would never be controversial if men got pregnant. This is snappy but sadly nonsensical, because it’s not prejudice against women that makes our reproductive rights so fraught – it’s our femaleness, and a male desire to secure paternity and property against female bodies. Patriarchal gender norms are no more natural or inevitable that motorway networks or out-of-town shopping centres. We’ve invented this system, and we can invent another; but in order to change anything, we have to acknowledge the need to change by seeing ourselves as we are. And increasingly, the language that would let us do that is being silenced.

When the Child Commissioner’s report into “child on child abuse” was published last year, there was much justified distress at the acts of sexual violence and coercion described. But as Sian Norris points out, what this summary of the report didn’t tell readers was that the children being assaulted are overwhelmingly girls, and the children doing the assaulting are even more overwhelmingly boysThe same goes for murder:  Karen Ingala Smith has been campaigning since the beginning of 2012 for the killings of women by men to be recorded in official Home Office statistics.

Currently, the Home Office records and publishes data on the sex of victims of homicide and their relationship to their killer. What it doesn’t do is publish information on the sex of the murderers – and this conceals the fact that the people who kill women are overwhelmingly men. We know, with a kind of dull acceptance of horror, that two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner, but what we don’t identify is the way that masculine contempt for women and desire to control women is practised with fatal results.

In the same way that the pretence of “not seeing race” allows racism to flourish unexamined, a refusal to acknowledge gender creates a warm pocket in which misogyny can multiply. The leaked Amnesty consultation document on prostitution is a good example of this. This document is explicitly designed to avoid any discussion of gendered power – the introduction informs the reader that the term “sex worker” has been chosen and is “intended to be gender neutral”. But the sex industry is not gender neutral: those who are hired for sex are overwhelmingly women, those doing the hiring are even more overwhelmingly men, and this in a world where (according to the World Bank) women own just 1% of all wealth. [Update 10 February 2014: see this comment for better quality measures of women’s access to capital and power.]

Amnesty may counter that this is an attempt to establish a universal principle rather than a gendered analysis, but what good is a universal principle when the difference of sex is at the very centre of the transaction? The material fact of the body and the social fact of gender both persist, however much one would like to cleanse them from the analysis. And some people would like to cleanse them very much. Disastrously, there are even efforts to purge gender from the language of reproductive rights under the guise of making services more accessible to trans people.

The US organisations Planned Parenthood and NARAL and the UK campaign Education for Choice have all recently given support to a petition calling on reproductive rights organisations to be “pro-trans pro-choice”. But there are few specifics on what a pro-trans pro-choice position would look like in practice, and where one has been attempted, the results create a vertiginous disconnect between the politics of reproduction and the bodies these operate on.

For example, the New York Abortion Access Fund’s values statement, now meticulously drafted to include people of all genders who may need the Fund’s support, opens with a strikingly clumsy piece of phrasing: “The New York Abortion Access Fund believes that every person should be able to determine their own reproductive destiny…” The unintended implications of this formulation are frankly dangerous to abortion rights.

Curtly, every “person” does not have the right to control their reproductive destiny: the men who impregnate women, for example, do not get to be the ultimate arbiters of whether that pregnancy is carried to term. And so one of the key insights of feminism is lost in a swamp of good intentions.

One might think that strictly biological language could offer an escape from such ambiguities, but apparently not: a Texas fundraiser called A Night of a Thousand Vaginas was criticised for its use of the V word by some trans activists, who claimed that it was alienating to trans men. Yet simultaneously in the UK, anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali receives vicious abuse accusing her of propagating a “cunt-obsessed culture” because of her work protecting girls from genital mutilation. A woman who claims the right to name and control her female body is still an insurrectionist, and our rebellion is not so advanced that we can afford to surrender any gains.

For those whose sex is misaligned with their sense of their own gender, I have sympathy and sisterhood. Trans women are no threat to feminism, they suffer the sexism that hurts every woman, and they have their share in this fight. But to fight sexism, we must understand that gender is a system of policing female bodies: transgender individuals bravely defy patriarchy’s absurd limitations (and often at the personal cost of horrendous stigma), but they cannot undo patriarchy simply by the force of their own exceptionalism.

We need to talk about what “man” and “woman” mean, and scrutinise the imperfect but profound association between those categories and the male and female humans they respectively act on. Feminism can never be gender neutral, because it is the corrective to a world with a manifest gender bias – albeit a bias that we would rather not acknowledge, even when women are killed by men, even when girls are raped by boys, even when women trade access to their bodies for money while men have the disposable income to pay for an orgasm.  We need to talk about gender.

17 thoughts on “We need to talk about gender

  1. Sarah, I clicked on a link on your blog thinking it would go to the Amnesty site, and instead I ended up at a Daily Mail story about Amnesty.
    Not only is any Daily Mail story about a left-wing human rights organisation very, very unlikely to be true, and therefore inappropriate to link as if it were a cite, I also really prefer never to give Paul Dacre’s vile site hits. It would be great if you would indicate that you’re citing the Daily Mail in the text, thank you.

  2. I’ve read the report and checked its provenance, and if you want to protect your precious clicks so much, consider using right-click. The Mail broke the story, the Mail gets the link.

  3. It seems you have chosen only the statistics where women are victims and then smeared all men because ‘masculine contempt for women and desire to control women’ is the cause of domestic violence.

    You scoff, ‘as if a preference for pictures of princesses or cars were a secondary sexual characteristic’, however, it may well be true. It is measurable on the first day of life that boys prefer mechanical things and women prefer faces, and all the way to adulthood that men prefer systematising, women prefer empathising. If this is the case, surely boys do prefer cars and girls do prefer the idea of romance?

  4. You need to read Cordelia Fine and meet some babies. It is measurable on day one that babies can’t play with anything because they have no fine motor control. Idiot.

  5. Thanks for this Sarah. You mentioned the increasing gendering of children’s books, which is something I’ve been worrying about for a while – even if a subject did tend to be more interesting to boys than girls or vice versa it’s seems to bizarre to label a book *just* for boys or *just* for girls as if we’re all the same, policing us into specific gender roles/interests.

    Depressingly it does seem to be getting worse rather than better. Lego used to be gender neutral in its approach and advertising in the 70’s and 80’s but now it’s more and more marketed as girls’ lego and boys’ lego – it shows that the assumption that many of us had that progress was too slow, but would keep moving forwards, was badly mistaken and we can go backwards on issues we thought were done and won.

    I did wonder (and this probably isn’t an original thought, but it’s only just occurred to me) how does the effort to have gender neutral colouring books (for instance) relate to the way intersectionality people are calling for more recognition of difference? In other words (and sorry if I’m expressing this clumsily) how do we both recognise existing social differences and ensure we’re not reinforcing artificial difference?

  6. “…even when women trade access to their bodies for money while men have the disposable income to pay for an orgasm”

    Your language is increasingly objectifying and Rad Fem. Sex Workers (not prostitutes) offer sexual services in exchange for gain.

    I wonder how much experience you have of working in the sex industry, having friends in the sex industry, or whether all your knowledge comes from “ex prostituted women” and reading Farley, Bindel et al. Also is most of your reading on street sex work?

    We need to support those workers who wish to exit, and support those who wish to continue to work in sex work in safer environments, protected from police brutality and rape, stigma, and dangerous clients who believe they can rape sw with no consequences. The Nordic model does not work.

    We need to work with, not speak for, current sex workers. We need to highlight sex workers rights movements globally.

    We need to leave behind our feelings of being ‘uncomfortable’ with sex work and champion respect and support for those who are working in the industry. You are not going to eradicate sex work in its many forms, but we could all work towards eradicating stigma and making the industry safer.

  7. In regards to ‘CharlieOneFour’ my friend once said, quite rightly, “It annoys me when the oppressor throughout history begins to play the roll of the oppressed when those who were originally oppressed begin to obtain empowerment.” I think it is also relevant that whilst the female and male brain is different, it doesn’t change until the child is 13 years old, therefore suggestion princesses and motor cars are as Sarah suggested socially constructed rather than essentialist. I was a little girl once, and I was not interested in princesses or pink for that matter.

  8. Why don’t you tell us the point you are making about Fine’s work and juxtapose it with Baron-Cohen’s, so we can see the merit of your argument, Sarah? You do neither yourself, nor your reputation any good by simply closing down discussion like this when pressed with such an obviously intelligent point. Especially when you so arrogantly spice that with the classic ad hominem, as though the views of a thoughtful person (and, yes, probably a man, perhaps one of those untermenchen in your schema) who is engaging with your views, are of no worth. After all, you have put your views out into the world for public consumption, therefore you are really ethically and morally bound to respect honest engagement with them. Calling people fools just because they are challenging your deeply-held beliefs (which, incidentally, in this case are wrong) is really very poor form you know? Do you know what the definition of bigotry is Sarah? It is blind, unreasoning belief: the stuff that inquisitions and persecutions are made of. Are you willing to learn anything new? Is your mind open, Sarah? Or so firmly closed and sealed in your dogmatic beliefs that reason is inaccessible to you. Are you interested in getting to the bottom of the discussion you started or are you just a feminist propagandist, not really interested in the balanced picture about how life really is? You are beginning to look like that by your actions here. Are you an honest, intelligent woman who still has things to learn, Sarah? This is not good enough I’m afraid.

  9. Surprisingly, I’m not going to summarise all Fine’s work for you here. She presents a substantial challenge to neurosexism, and if you’re invested in sustaining those beliefs, I suggest you read her yourself. She’s a highly engaging writer and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of interest in her work. Enjoy!

  10. It’s interesting you think this comes from my personal “discomfort”. Funnily enough, I’m not uncomfortable with the sale of sex per se – I know people who’ve done sex work and supported them in their choices, and for a long time I cleaved to the same harm reduction model as you. But ultimately, that means accepting that men have an inevitable right to access women’s bodies for money. It means overlooking the harm inherent to prostitution – an exploitative business is not made less so by government tolerance. You use the term “rad fem” disparagingly, but I am radically pro woman and not likely to be offended by you stating that. I think things can be better. Why wouldn’t we try to make them so?

  11. I worry that the prevalence of the omission of male victims of sexism by those understandably promoting gender equality will only stifle that movement. At worst, could that kind of selectivity even perpetuate the attitudes that are attempting to be defied?

    Second, the use of catch-phrases like ‘reproductive rights’ is no way to gain others’ empathy. Talking about real situations may be more effective. If abortion is a reproductive right, plain and simple, no further discussion warranted, you’re leaving open many a valid question. What about the factor of responsibility? Of course, that isn’t always applicable as women are regularly raped, often resulting in pregnancy. But it is something worth encouraging young people (and not so young people) to practice; safety, prudence, etc. What about the reproductive risks of abortion? What about the psychological risks? I took part, 10 or so years ago, in killing my accidental offspring via abortion, and it still haunts me. It’s not just a g*ddamn catch-phrase issue. If people want to talk about it, LET’S TALK ABOUT IT. Let’s talk about how it’s not a big deal, and you can just say ‘reproductive rights’ and call anyone opposed a sexist. That’s not a discussion or invitation for engagement; it’s reductionist dogma. Notice I haven’t said I think abortion should be illegal. I think it should be discussed THOROUGHLY; from the occasional medical reasons it’s done, to the need for its legality AT LEAST for allowing women not to carry a baby to term that was forcibly conceived, to peoples’ testimonies of what it’s like for them to have participated in abortion.

    I assume that people who use the ‘reproductive rights’ phrase think that the only people who should be allowed to decide whether to have an abortion are those who carry babies. But what about late abortions? What about other decisions (like drug use) that can harm the fetus? Where do you draw the line? Maybe there is no line, but I think it more likely that people just get so caught up in feeling oppressed (not unjustifiably) that they assume everyone knows the specifics of their beliefs and values.

    Yes, let’s talk about gender. Let’s talk about BOTH genders. Women may very well have it worse, but men are not all free of gender discrimination. And when it comes so such a deadly-serious, potentially life-altering issue such as abortion, let’s REALLY talk about it, not just try and fit it in a neat little package in which it simply doesn’t fit. Thank you for reading.

  12. “But the sex industry is not gender neutral: those who are hired for sex are overwhelmingly women, those doing the hiring are even more overwhelmingly men, and this in a world where (according to the World Bank) women own just 1% of all wealth.”

    That’s a bogus stat that has been debunked countless times. Women in America alone own about 9% of the world’s wealth. I suggest you do, due diligence when using feminists sourced stats because a lot of the time their quite deceptive. Men and women live together thus they tend to reside at around the same class level. The large disparities are seen in race/class groups not gender/sex because both males and females are born to rich and poor families in roughly equal numbers.


  13. For all those voices who demand engagement from Sarah on the specifics of the disagreement between Fine and Baron-Cohen, ‘Delusions of Gender’ is a brilliant read.

    For your convenience, here is also a link to a post from Feminist Current, where Cecilia Winterfox eloquently explains why feminists are not responsible for educating men (or women, for that matter) about feminism:


  14. You’re right, Edward: the 1% figure is sketchy, and I could have chosen a more robust indicator. So let’s go with this from the NYT: across industrialised countries, men’s median, full-time pay is 17.6% higher than women’s. Or political power: fewer than one in five parliamentarians worldwide are women. So, even if we surrender the high drama of the 1% figure, we still see that women have substantially less capital and less access to government than men. Which means that any pretence of prostitution as a transaction between equal classes can do one.

  15. Nick: I’ve written a whole lot about reproductive rights. It’s covered more than thoroughly elsewhere. But for clarity: no human has the right to live off the body of another human. Abortion should be available as early as possible and as late as necessary (I accept the 24-week “viability” limit in the UK, with exceptions for exceptional cases, as a functional fudge). Foetuses in utero are not people and have no right to protection from harm; women must never be punished on that basis. There’s your “really talking about it”.

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