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.

6 things that happen when you write about feminism

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1. You will be accused of hating men

At first this will sound ridiculous. Then you’ll feel irritated. Then you might feel riled and want to say: “YES I HATE MEN AND THEY MUST ALL BECOME SOYLENT GREEN.”

But the truth is, I don’t hate men. I just think I am awesome – too awesome for my life to be decided along the lines of what someone else thinks is appropriate to my gender. Too awesome to go around cringing over the fact that I am woman-shaped and have woman interests and woman-y inside-bits.

The people who accuse feminism of hating men have a very fragile, narrow idea of being a man – they’re something like a fluorescent tube. They are worried that any change will shatter them. Feel sorry for them, but not too sorry: like the rest of us, they will probably be OK.

2. You will get long, self-justifying communications from people who in all honesty sound like they’re the problem

Before I started writing on feminist subjects – which means reproductive rights, equal parenting and safety from violence in my case, which means absurdly that all those things are seen as the province of one particular cause rather than, y’know, human rights – really sexist people were like a rare species of angry mammal. Wild pigs, maybe. I’d seen a few of them dashing through the trees with foam on their tusks, but they’d never actually run full at me.

That changes when you write about feminism. Then, the pigs in the forest start charging towards you, grunting things like “women are naturally incapable of creativity” or “how do you expect men not to rape if women wear short skirts”. (I’m not making those up, by the way.) On a really good day, you’ll get lengthy emails from a man telling you how unfair it is that he’s not allowed to see his kids after his ex provoked him once – just once! – into assaulting her.

The important thing about this is that the number of pigs in the wood hasn’t changed, it’s just that they know you’re there and they’re coming for you. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s been a massive explosion in the pig population. Just study them, learn about them, and work out how to spear them.

3. You will want to say: “Wait! I’m not that kind of feminist!”

Later, you will realise that people who say they don’t like feminism (rather than, say, people who debate the usefulness of certain ideals to the wider feminist cause) aren’t the kind of people you actually want making an exception for you. They’re probably not destined to be your top pal.

4. You will be asked whether you’re a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat, as if these things were accusations

And when they’re wrong, you will have to resist triumphantly shouting something like: “No! Ha! I am a straight, married mother of average BMI! In your STUPID PRESUMPTUOUS FACE!” Because to do that would, of course, be to endorse the hatstand morality that says being a single parent or a lesbian or childless or fat is a shameful condition that invalidates anything you have to say – and it would leave you at a distinct disadvantage if they ever fluked into being correct.

Yet there is some purpose in your impulse to deny: when people say these things, they’re saying that nothing you ever do can be uninflected by the physical. They’re saying that you are the deviation from the reliable, masculine norm and your words proceed from your ovaries. You would understandably like to disabuse them of that notion.

And you may do so – gently, and without accepting that there’s any justice in their hatreds.

5. You will hear: “Not everything is a feminist issue, you know”

Some people think sexism should get a pass for the greater good. Their version of the greater good is shitting on half the world, which doing some maths tells me is not actually the greater good at all. Ignore them.

6. You will be told: “Enough with the isms and ists”

Personally, I don’t feel like it is enough. I don’t think it’s good enough for my daughter and her peers to grow up in a world where some chump can go on TV and joke about his “instincts” telling him to grope a woman’s breasts, and then use the image of her giving someone (implicitly him) a hand job to embarrass her. I am not cool with that.

Before we had the language of “ists” and “isms” we had “no property rights” and “legal marital rape”. We’re a tiny way out of a history of seeing women as things not people, and I want the next generation to grow up knowing that they do not have to put up with this rudeness.

Because that’s why I write about feminism: in the hope that some time, eventually, no one will have to.

Photo via kReEsTaL

Rape, rhetoric and research: a reluctant defence of lad mags

Who wants to be an apologist for lad mags? Not me. Reading them (which I do semi-regularly for work reasons) is a distinctly grimy and tedious experience, thanks to their special mix of joyless boobery, football news I’ve already heard and summaries of things I saw on the internet weeks ago.

Remember when Zoo got monstered over a Danny Dyer advice column that suggested a correspondent “cut [his] ex’s face”? I posted the horrified twitpic that started that round of outrage. I don’t like lad mags, and they probably wouldn’t like me much, if they had any opinion on me at all. So I basically hate having to say what I’m about to say, but: lad mags have been treated unfairly in the most recent accounts of their vileness. Continue reading

Running away from the voices

I like to run. When I started running semi-seriously, I would go out in the evening for a couple of miles of huffing and puffing – sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. I usually ran two or three times a week, and (this is an estimate because I never kept a diary of it) once or twice a fortnight my run would be attended by some form of moronic heckling.

Sometimes, that meant a car horn beeping as the vehicle came up behind me. Sometimes, a driver or a passer-by shouting something leery or critical. Bizarrely, a pizza delivery moped once made two circuits of the park so the kid riding it could bark – proper, gutteral dog barks – at me and the friends I was running with. Continue reading

[Comment is free] Listen to the boys, not just the girls

This piece was originally published by the Guardian

A lot of words get spilt over the inner lives of girls in the UK. Have they been over-sexualised by Bratz dolls and padded training bras? Do they aspire to have productive lives, or have they all been seduced by glamour and celebrity? Now the Girl Guides has released a detailed and thoughtful survey, showing that girls value their friends, are close to their mothers, worry about the environment but are nearly all happy most of the time. Continue reading