The Observer | Themes of 2016: the battle to decide one’s own identity

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This is one of five pieces by different writers commissioned by the Observer to cover the big issues of 2016: you can also read Carole Cadwalladr on tech disruptionRyan Avent on how technology puts millions of jobs in jeopardyIan Buruma on the rise of autocrats, and (in print only at the moment) Michael Sandel on what progressive parties need to reckon with to retain relevance.

In 2016, body politics went definitively mainstream. Transgender people, having previously been objects of niche curiosity and prurience at best from most of the media, became the subject of mid-morning current affairs debates, in-depth documentaries and sympathetic profiles. What does it mean to be trans? How should society change to give trans people necessary rights and protections?

These questions received urgent discussion, while other issues were more implied than addressed: how much is anyone able to control their own body, both in terms of what they choose to do with it and how it is perceived by other people? That problem of rights and responsibilities, and the tension between the individual and society, simmered away not only in the context of gender but also when it came to many other matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the full column at the Observer

Little Atoms | The conservative Christians who see trans people as heretics

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There are no protests outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London, when I arrive. There have been no petitions, and no angry pleas for the venue to cancel the event I’ve come to see: a two-day conference called “The New Normal: Tackling Sexuality and Gender Confusion Amongst Children and Young People”, put on by conservative campaign group Christian Concern. The quiet is unsettling. Any discussion of transgenderism that goes beyond the affirmative now tends to attract extreme hostility.

In Canada, a doctor has been fired and his clinic shut down under pressure from trans activists. Feminists who hold that sex is more politically relevant than gender identity are accused of causing violence against trans people. The organisation Radfem Collective, which has been attacked as trans exclusionary for its women-only attendance policy, now doesn’t reveal the location of its conferences until the day before the event – sensibly, given that pressure from protesters over another women-only event in 2012 led to the venue pulling out and the event being cancelled.

The New Normal outstrips any of these targets. It features, among other things, an “ex-gay” counsellor who claims he can guide his clients out of “unwanted same-sex feelings”; a former Ukip parliamentary candidate who claims that homosexuality is connected to pedophilia and bestiality; and two speakers who describe themselves as “COGs” (short for “children of gays”), and claim that same-sex parenting is a violation of children’s rights. Christian Concern itself is currently providing legal support for a mother and father who could lose custody having refused to acknowledge their trans child’s gender.

Read the full article at Little Atoms

Expanded bumholes, unexpanded minds

Margaret Atwood got something wrong in the generally impeccable Handmaid’s Tale. When she imagined the reproductive dystopia of Gilead, she saw a world where backlash theologians had allied with anti-porn feminists to create a state that was hostile to non-reproductive sexuality in all its forms. What has actually happened in America between the novel’s 1985 publication and 2015 is rather different. Pornography has unambiguously triumphed: popular culture is saturated in it, and in any state of America, you are only a few channel-hops away from seeing women naked, women crawling, women jerking their body parts (either surgically hypersexed or tastefully starved), women degraded for male pleasure. Meanwhile, 56% of US women now live in states hostile to abortion rights – an increase from 31% in 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and part of a general pushback against the rights enshrined by Roe vs Wade. When Gilead comes to be, it won’t have anything to do with the Redstockings.

The assumption that male sexual license and female emancipation will go hand-in-hand is a persistent one, despite the lack of any plausible mechanism to justify it. “If we liberate men’s sexuality, the war against women can end,” promises Margaret Corvid, writing at the New Statesman. Men, she points out, are constrained by the part that patriarchy demands of them, and they suffer deprivations on that account. Working as a professional dominatrix, Corvid writes that she is “creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken.” She surmises from this that men are not happy in their gender, and I agree with her that they should not be: patriarchy is bad for men, and male violence deprives men of life at a preposterous rate.

All this is well and sympathetically observed. We start to part company, though, when Corvid claims “radical feminism would call me a traitor to my gender for serving men’s needs” (in my radical feminism, she is no traitor, though I would question whether “needs” is the right word for elaborate sexual preferences), and then diverge entirely when she offers her political prospectus. Men are victims of masculinity, she says, and pick-up artists and men’s rights activist are offering seductive solutions for those who feel betrayed. She believes that feminism has an obligation to provide an alternative. “We must offer a real answer for men consumed by anxiety, and especially those who feel a sense of sexual frustration,” she writes. Her motive here is not purely altruistic. In fact, there’s a strong dose of pragmatism:

“But we must also end the debate between moralists and libertines in our ranks for an essential strategic reason. If feminists do not abandon their moralism, men’s rights activists and their growing penumbra of supporters will continue to paint us all with the same brush. They will continue to distort our views, telling their audience that we are all moralists, and channeling the frustration of men towards their hateful ends. And, for millions of boys growing up, misogyny will continue to make more sense than feminism.”

“Moralism” here means the feminism that criticises porn and seeks to abolish prostitution – although activists such as MacKinnon, Dworkin and Dines are driven not by prudishness but by an intimate understanding of the woman-hating that animates the sex industry. (“I lived inside of a world where it almost seemed like an entire gender was being denigrated […] simply for the crime, it seemed, of being a woman,” says one former pornographer of his time in the industry.) What Corvid offers is no new sexual settlement: this is still the female body being held hostage by the threat of male violence. If feminists don’t do this, then men will hate us more. If we (the “we” here presumably being women) liberate male sexuality, then men might not exert their power over women with quite such brutality. If only we were more fuckable, then men might like us and be kinder. It’s a mirror of PUA-inspired mass murderer Eliot Rodger’s complaint in his suicide note: “All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so!”

It takes more than sitting on a dildo to free a man from patriarchy. Men surely do find pleasure and release in submitting to Corvid, but they are the client buying a service from her: as she concedes, their sense of self is not radically altered by the experience, and they put their clothes on and return to their real lives. And what they undergo with Corvid is less an escape from gender than a temporary trip through its looking glass: services she provides include “forced feminisation and sissy training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of being treated as though he were female), “maid training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of doing housework, just like a woman normally does), “slave training” (where a man experiences the eroticised degradation of being treated as a “beautiful object”, just like a woman is should she pass an arbitrary aesthetic standard)  or “medical play” involving a fully equipped gynecological bench (where a man experiences the erotic degradation of… well you’ve probably got this by now).

The hierarchy of gender (masculine above, feminine below) is alive in all these performances. I don’t doubt that these experiences are pleasurable, revelatory and cathartic for the men who seek them, but a fleeting inversion of a power structure does nothing to dismantle it. The clients’ bumholes might have been expanded, but their minds have not necessarily. The experience of intersubjectivity for which penetration is a metaphor – of feeling for others, of letting someone else inside –  is encouraged in little girls and deplored in little boys, and a man who pays for his ejaculation has in no sense been forced to confront that lack in his socialisation. She works, he receives, and the money framing the scenario is a guarantee of his power. Ultimately, he doesn’t need to care about what he’s missing.

It’s always supposed to be women who care – who do those labours of love, the second guessing and the sublimation from which others can derive their happiness. It’s always supposed to be women who mind – who stay watchful, who maintain appearances, who count out our allowance of humanity for fear of someone thinking we have asked for too much. The alternative is not offered by either Corvid or the MRA types she defines herself against, but it is the only one that makes sense for female survival: it is that we women are not effigies to be fucked by men or traded (not even by ourselves in exchange for safe passage through a hostile world), but real beings with real wants, needs, wishes and existences apart from what men desire and can pay for. Contrary to what men are repeatedly told, their erections are not the most important thing in the world, and women’s liberation starts when we refuse to live in the shadow of the cock.

Female sexuality is not fluid

My sexuality is not fluid. I know it is meant to be – I know that, as a woman, the ladmag diktat that “female sexuality is fluid” is supposed to apply to me, and mean that pressuring me into having a girl-girl-guy threesome would be merely unleashing my buried erotic potential, should any male partner wish to do such a thing. But my sexuality is not fluid. It cannot be poured into a cup by someone else, made formless and amenable, consumed by anyone who wants to drink it.

My sexuality is not fluid. There are things I like, and things I do not like; things that incite me to pleasure, and things that do not. My sexuality is not fluid, even though it took me a remarkably long time to recognise this, to accept that my desire has validity and positivity, that I am not just composed of responsive matter but that I have a lust of my own (what is that lust for? That is my business). My sexuality is not fluid, though that doesn’t mean it is fixed: I enjoy meat but I could be a political vegetarian, and gorge joyously on fruits and grains, so why couldn’t I find different sexual pleasures as my ethics direct me?

But that does not mean my sexuality is fluid, does not mean it is a liquid that other people (male people) can decant to serve their own pleasure. When it comes to the boundaries of my own person, my wants are the absolute law: to say, as has been said, that it is “rooted in cissexism and general poor sex education” for a woman to reject those with penises as sexual partners is to say that women (female women) may have no boundaries, it is to say that the female libido is simply a formless puddle for others to plash in. (Who are these others? They are solid, they have form – they are, implicitly, male. While political heterosexuality may be demanded of women, aparently men are not required to swear their fealty to penetration. Funny, that.)

But my sexuality is a part of me, and it has edges and boundaries, inlets and recesses, all of which are my dominion. My sexuality is not fluid. And anyone who says it must be is trying to melt me into liquid nothing, watch me soak into the cracks of my own life, remove me from existence.

My sexuality is not fluid.