Monthly Archives: June 2014

Hipster misogyny: pretending female bodies don’t exist

I am female and I have a female body. I know! How retro! Weren’t they last seen in biology textbooks from the 1950s? (My bleeding vagina says no.) I am writing this having just read a trans woman’s response to Laurie Penny’s recent article on trans rights the New Statesman. I am not interested in discussing that particular “controversy”; what interests (and angers) me is the following passage:

The British feminist media cadre — particularly its triumvirate of transphobes whose filter on current events is more or less penis shaped — has given Penny heaps of abuse. I will not link their statements, nor bother to once again speak their names, but I reckon you all know who I mean. And they’ve been utterly hostile to Penny solely for having critical thinking that is resistant to the nostalgic imaginations of feminism’s nature-over-nurture iconification of the True Female Body.

It’s hilarious, isn’t it? Let’s all have a laugh. Oh, those silly, silly TERFs, thinking that the female body is something that they, mere cis women, can define. How regressive! How conservative! That’s not how it works. As the opening sentence of the blog post shows – describing “the blistering zap of laser against upper lip” – having “a female body” isn’t having a womb and a vagina and all of the shit that comes with it. It is, on the other hand, having a hairless upper lip (a surprise to sufferers of PCOS, but never mind).

Few things make me viscerally angry but I read this and I can’t help thinking “how dare you?” How dare anyone that it is okay to dismiss the reality of a female body with superiority, smugness and snark? How dare anyone who does not experience female oppression from birth ridicule those who try to locate and articulate it? How dare anyone imply the very act of describing the female body makes one complicit in the objectification to which it is subject (nostalgic … iconification)? To write something like that is cruel, mean-spirited and heartless. It pisses all over the abuses women and girls suffer every day because of the bodies they are born into. It erases the disjuncture between male fantasies of what a female body is and female experiences of having one. It sneers at feminists who passionately challenge essentialist beliefs about what female bodies mean.

The True Female Body was never a feminist fantasy; it was and is a patriarchal one. The True Female Body is fetishized, objectified, used and then rejected. That those who attempt to put a better narrative in its place – one that is based on flesh, blood and the humanity of women – should then be accused of patriarchy’s own crimes is nothing short of shameful.

Female bodies are imperfect. If you do not have one, you will not know this. You may want one, but that is by the by. You can’t erase someone else’s existence because it isn’t yours. There are things that females experience that you would not want. You will not, from the day you are born, be told to fear men because you are smaller, weaker and less valuable. You will not experience puberty as becoming a piece of meat, all tits and arse for others to devour. You will not endure the pain of endometriosis. You will never sit alone on a toilet painfully passing out the bloody clots of an embryo that didn’t make it. You will never literally piss yourself laughing because that’s what childbirth has done to your muscle tone. You will never go through a premature menopause. You will never know what it is like to be born into a body that is not supposed to shit, urinate, stink, fart, sweat, burp, grow hair in the wrong places, make too much noise or take up too much space, and which nevertheless does all of these things. You will never feel the weight of millennia of disgust for the hole that is between your legs. This is not idealisation. This is not iconification. It is the very opposite – a plea for the female body to be taken seriously, not as an object for others to describe, but as something that is inhabited and experienced by real, live human beings.

The female body is not an imagining. It is not an object to be picked off a shelf. It is not lip lasering or hormones or implants or restructuring. It is pain and blood and guts and strength. There are few things so misogynist as to dismiss all that women and girls go through with a smug, superior quip while simultaneously deciding — you, the expert — precisely which physical experiences do count as “female” (hairless upper lips? What do you think women are? Barbie dolls?).

You accuse feminists who disagree with you of “nostalgic imaginings”. You write of “iconification”. There is nothing nostalgic in granting female bodies status and meaning. There is nothing essentialist, muddle-headed or sentimental in defending bodies that have been viewed as disgusting, dirty and the source of all sin for millennia. There is nothing shameful in describing female experience of female bodies. Women are not the sum of their reproductive systems but this very fact – that they are HUMAN BEINGS and not just walking wombs – means they damn well have the right to talk about what their body is and what it means.

To treat women who seek to articulate their own physical realities as naïve, bigoted earth mothers, consenting to the hatred directed at their bodies simply for daring to admit these bodies exist, is a disgrace. To say “I am female and this means something” is not to say “I am what male observers of the female body throughout the ages have reduced me to”.  Not to be able to see this is out and out misogyny. It is hateful and it is not okay.

Dear “pro-feminist” male partner

Dear ‘pro-feminist’ male partner

You may have noticed a growing trend for writing blog posts addressed at large, loosely-defined groups of women, with the express intention of explaining to them, in patronising detail, why they are a bit shit. Dear white feminists, dear cis people, that sort of thing (yes, these titles don’t specifically state ‘women’ but we all know that is what is meant). These posts are crap for a number of reasons:

1. They make the political deeply personal while pretending not to do so, presenting personal attacks as structural analysis (and any structural analysis on the part of those being critiqued as personal attacks).

2. Instead of contextualising aspects of sexism as it is experienced by different groups, they simply deny that certain groups of women experience these aspects at all (a poor cis white lesbian? Don’t be daft – such a creature cannot exist! And denying another person’s very specific experience of oppression is, like, totes intersectional…)

3. They’re not really aimed at the people they claim to be aimed at – it’s just a passive-aggressive sport. See how much you can insult a woman without her revealing her “bigotry” by saying “enough”.

4. There’s no theory of patriarchy because to have a theory of patriarchy is, so the story goes, tantamount to saying sexism is the only form of discrimination there is and that there are no intersections with other forms of discrimination. This story is, by the way, utter rubbish, but it doesn’t stop those who tell it from thinking they’re being really deep and insightful. Silly them. Silly, sexist, patronising them.

Anyhow, those “dear group of people I shall pretend to educate, even though it’s not my fucking job and what I’m actually doing is shitting on you because I feel like it” posts — they’re awful. So I’m really, really not wanting to write one here. What I am wanting to do is explain some things about privilege, fear and male entitlement that a lot of ‘pro-feminist’ men don’t seem to get, not because they are stupid or mean but because a lot of women, having lived their entire lives being told they are inferior, don’t get them either.

Feminism excludes people. Yeah, I know, that’s what you’ve been saying all along, each time you’ve wrung your hands over feminist “in-fighting” and wished those cis fems would sit down and listen and learn (not to you, obviously, what with you being male. But you have tried to “signal boost” on behalf of more oppressed women, which isn’t the same as speaking for them, since only nasty cis fems can make that mistake). Anyhow, feminism excludes, but not for the reasons you think. Feminism tells people — those born male — that they are excluded from spaces that they thought belonged to them. Such spaces include women’s bodies and their minds. It tells them they are no longer invited to the “decide what a woman is and use her accordingly” party. This annoys men since it goes against what they’ve been told all their lives. They cry “bigot”, as do some women, who can’t imagine a life whose boundaries were not set by male superiors (why, without a man to fuck her and tell her what she is, does a woman even exist?).  The space that women need to be whole, complete human beings is suddenly off-limits to outsiders. This “keep out” sign — which we call “consent” — is recast as prejudice. This is not fair or just, but it’s what feminists have always been fighting against in one way or another.

Of course, it is convenient not to think of feminism in this way. Nice, inclusive feminism should create some space for everyone (in much the same way that nice, inclusive traditional womanhood does). Thus we pretend that the oppression of women isn’t based on a violent gender hierarchy which tramples over the very idea that those born female have a right to say no. We pretend it is just some embarrassing mix-up. Being devalued as a person because of your biological sex in relation to the gender hierarchy is suddenly reduced to the same status as wearing odd socks or being given white wine when you ordered red. We just need to tweak it a little to find out what one’s “natural” position is (hey, you know who’s best at that sort of tweaking? Trans women. Funny, that). Meanwhile, women born female might as well just carry on being cis, which is totally different to playing the same old shitty traditional inclusive womanhood role, apart from the fact that it’s exactly the same.

I know what you are thinking: this is not the whole of feminism. It’s just one particular area, those inclusivity debates that take place on twitter, and it’s hardly real life. And anyhow, setting aside all this trans-cis stuff — since risking being called a bigot is a step too far for you when it comes to standing by a woman — aren’t there more important, practical things? What about real-life violence, abuse and silencing of women? You’re ace at spotting and condemning that. Well, here’s the thing: you’re not. It’s happening all the time and you don’t notice, or rather, you only notice when a man “acts like a sexist”. The broader context of undermining, devaluing and silencing women passes you, and indeed most of us, by.

Do you know why, when you go into a meeting at work or a seminar or a classroom or down the pub, men are not yelling at women to shut the fuck up or they’ll get what’s coming to them? You think it is because most men are nice. I think most men are nice, too, but I also think the reason they are not yelling these things is BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE TO. Female socialisation — the abuse and the fear that it embeds — is massive. The effects are everywhere. Women are traumatised by it in ways they can’t even admit. In places relatively new environments (e.g. social media) men yelling at women to shut the fuck up are far more common because the knee-jerk silence response isn’t yet embedded. It will be, though. Women see what happens to other women and they know to be quiet without having to be asked.

Women feel this online but they also feel it in everyday interactions. It is part of what being a woman is (yeah, yeah, whatever, you read some Butler and Serano, you think being a woman is a contextualised performance with specific scenarios blah blah blah. But denying that the performance of womanhood is shaped within a context of extreme oppression from the point of birth is, I think, a pretty fucking selective reading of context and performance). Womanhood, if it is anything, is about feeling unsafe and unduly dependent on others for one’s own reality. Once you know this you know enough not to reinforce it

It is not enough to condemn men who explicitly abuse women and make them feel threatened. That is good and it is appreciated. But if you want women to feel safe, you owe them the reassurance that you do not implicitly expect their silence. You owe them the reassurance that you do not feel entitled to define their boundaries. You owe them the reassurance that you do not think “being a male feminist” is a game of “spot the sexist” or merely the act of sharing the housework — it is understanding that we inhabit a whole culture that makes women feel that they are less. It is understanding that women’s spaces still need reclaiming.

It has taken me a long time to understand this and I am a woman myself. I imagine it is harder for a man. I don’t condemn or judge you. I just really, really want you to understand.

On becoming a TERF

You’re not quite sure when it started. It was a creeping hysteria, progressing inch by inch, breaking down the boundaries word by word and phrase by phrase.

When the ground is being pulled from under you, you try to make the best of it. You think “well, how much space do I need anyhow?” You shuffle your feet, stand on tip-toe, say “no, it’s fine, I can live with this”. You are, you tell yourself, being practical and considerate. It might militate against what you believe yourself to be, and the space to which you feel you are entitled, but you’ve been used to this since the day you were born. You are, after all, a woman, or so you used to allow yourself to think. Continue reading On becoming a TERF

Non-binary people: A helpful guide for TERFs and non-TERFs alike

  1. How do I know if an individual is non-binary?

A common mistake is to think it’s okay simply to ask. Please don’t do this; it’s rude and individuals could find it triggering. Fortunately there are easy ways to tell. Is this individual a human being? If the answer is yes, then this person is inherently non-binary (NB one can be human regardless of whether one is male or female).

Gender is, after all, a hierarchical system of oppression arising from sex difference. People express and identify themselves in ways which overlap with presumed manifestations of sex-based oppression and/or dominance. Why they do so depends on many factors: social conditioning, class, fear of violence, caring responsibilities, economic advantage, innate personality traits. They ought to have every right to do so, but no one can claim to be more “non-binary” than the next.  No one naturally identifies with being oppressed and no one is simply born to be considered inferior.

  1. Hang on, I thought only me, my mates and a few famous arty types, most of whom are male, were allowed to be non-binary?

Then I am guessing you are young-ish, quite possibly a student or a writer, certainly not a post-menopausal woman (urgh! cis!), and your beliefs are based partly on a very sensible critique of gender and partly on a fuckload of privilege.

Listen: you are not the literal embodiment of shitty, restrictive gender stereotypes but nor is anyone else. They’re really not. So you were assigned female at birth but don’t “feel” like a woman? Guess what? Most females don’t! That’s because “being a woman” is aligned with “being a bit shit” in a patriarchal society and not because some women “naturally” align themselves with having long hair and talking in squeaky voices. You have no idea why other women make the compromises they do or fail to be as different as you. You don’t know their inner lives or what they’ve been through. You don’t know their needs. You have no right to co-opt them into a system which positions them as inferior, all the while insisting that they must be privileged to present as so woman-y. Who made you the gender police? You cannot claim an identity which relies on others being dehumanised and excluded. We’re all non-binary, all of us better than this hateful hierarchy.

  1. So if everyone is non-binary, how should I respond to them?

As though they are real flesh-and-blood humans with real fears and real needs. This can be hard if you’re not used to it. If you’ve been very immersed in reinforcing the binary-ness of others, you need to take your time and set yourself easy targets, Why not, say, go at least one hour without stalking women you don’t like on twitter, searching for an opportunity to call them vile, bigot, scum, TERF etc. on the discredited basis that you’re magically non-binary and they’re not? Once that works, set yourself a slightly longer target. You can do it!

It might be more difficult with loved ones. How does one cope, for instance, with the knowledge that one’s own mother isn’t just some off-the-shelf middle-aged cis woman? Does it mean she might stop doing your laundry, cooking your dinner and listening to you whine on about how hard it is when you’re the one being to subjected to all these rigid cis norms? Probably not. That’s gender oppression for you. That’s why half the world is underpaid or not paid at all, at severe risk of violence from the other half and without a voice in countless political systems. It’s not because we love it, silly! We weren’t born thinking we couldn’t be open, rich, complete, non-binary human beings. We get resigned, you see. You could help in small ways, though. If you’re male, for instance, taking a break from twitter activism to do some lowly “women’s work” is a brilliant way to challenge those nasty cis norms. Go on, scrub those dishes for the sake of your non-binary brothers and sisters!

  1. What other ways can I help non-binary people?

There are plenty of simple ways for the blinkered to help the other non-binary people they’ve been shitting on for months on end. Yay! Here are just a few:

  • Educate yourself about intersectionality. Funnily enough, it isn’t about treating women like crap on some flimsy in-your-head basis that has fuck all to do with structural oppression and contextualised solutions. But anyhow, it’s not my job to educate you. Have a goddam read.
  • Listen and learn from older feminists. Yeah, I know: you think older feminists are all useless “cis” bigots who haven’t had enough cock to make them human. Believe it or not, they’re as complex and non-binary as you. Now stop being such a misogynist bigot and try and engage in some actual dialogue (“die, TERF” doesn’t count).
  • Read up a bit on human reproduction and have a long, hard think about how this might tie in with gender as a system of oppression. Sex is not gender; those of us born female are not destined to be categorised in the way that “woman” is categorised now. But it’s a massive fucking coincidence that we are and it’s about time this abusive system stopped being reinforced by those who consider it valid as long as they can grant themselves permission to rise above it. We all have that right so don’t claim an identity which relies on some of us remaining the shitty foil against which you define your own glitteringly complex self.
  • Stop co-opting random people – Morrissey, Eddie Izzard, whoever – into your “yeah, I’ll let them be non-binary” system. You’re worse than my nan. She wouldn’t let me watch Bod on the basis that “you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl”. Now you’re sitting there, deciding who’s allowed to be one of you on the basis that he, she or [insert pronoun] “looks a bit funny”. What kind of a conservative bigot are you?
  • Spend time with a diverse range of people (middle-class wannabe journalists in their twenties who live in London and all have self-pitying twitter bios does not count as diverse)
  1. What’s the best thing I can do?

Stop being a total prat. Please. Women’s liberation – and their lives – depend on it.