To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

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As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name - not to mention nerdiness - I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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Chapter 7: Stranger Danger

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

I’d most likely be straight today had Jonathan been a girl. He never could have been, of course – the friendship where things started out between us categorically male, and girls don’t often assault boys – but the fact my flesh responded to his touch even as my mind fled makes me think it would have done to anyone’s. It’s not widely admitted sexual assault can be arousing, but many victims will quietly acknowledge among themselves that that’s part of the violation. At any rate, I don’t think I’m alone in having coped over the years by allowing memories of mine to be erotic.

I was stretched out on the living room sofa a few weeks later when being gay came to me. Eyes shut, brain replaying Jonathan’s words, palm moving over denim jeans, it seemed the natural explanation if his actions or their reenactment made things throb. It didn’t bother me, and was more an oh than anything, but neither did I ask myself whether a girl might have the same effect. I couldn’t have been less attracted to him, but instead of sussing hard-ons were about nerve endings, I assumed the way Jonathan’s fingers turned me on must involve him being a boy, and boys became my sexual focus.

Dial-up modems were still widespread in 2004. Their distinctive electronic rasp was the sound of discovery: home from school in the late afternoon, for evenings and into the night I sat at Mum’s bedroom table googling ‘gay teenagers’ on an HP computer. Avoiding reels of porn, which were a later destination, I found informative websites, advice columns, forums for queer youth and chatrooms. Reclusive, twelve and with no reason to go out, I spent whole weekends on these sites, and not just because of how long it took them to load.

You might be reading this with apprehension, and initially I was apprehensive. As much as anyone today, I’d been told the Internet was a dark, twisted place, not least for children – the home of perverts, deviants and strangers who’d handed sweets out in playgrounds before MSN arrived. In fact, living online saved me. It was where I made my very first queer friendships, mocked Fred Phelps, learnt about the real ins and outs of sex and listened to coming out stories. The net was somewhere I felt uniquely safe: I decided I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t.

Now and then, an unsettling message appeared; I clicked Block and that was that. There’d been no block button when Jonathan sat next to me in German class – indeed, it was our school’s insistence on shielding pupils from unseemly talk of sex that made what happened possible. Unlike in meatspace, no one could do anything to me online that I didn’t want them to. Even away from public forums, my contacts – Floridan Sean, Canadian Chris, Matt in New Zealand, Logan in one of America’s Birminghams – were half a planet away and confined to speaking via onscreen text. It’s hard to imagine a less vulnerable form of communication. Research on sexual violence shows the stranger-predator to be a bogeyman: usually, as I’d been unlucky enough to find out, the culprit is someone known to us.

As we spent whole nights discussing bullying and Buffy, trading mp3s and occasional selfies, it turned out some of my online friends – one or two in their mid-twenties – did think I was cute. It’s hard not making this sound powerfully creepy, but I don’t believe it was ever sinister. These people were part of large and interweaving web communities, some of them with popular LiveJournals, and we’d spoken now and then by webcam with the same platonic ease friends at school had: they were real people as clearly to me as my blogging colleagues now, and when a couple fessed up guiltily to wishing I was older, it was with the shy apologism of a best friend admitting a light crush. It had occurred to me they were cute too, and while nothing beyond affection ever came of it, hearing they felt the same of me was on the whole affirming. In contrast to what I’d been through with someone my own age, it wasn’t predatory at all, but healing.

I won’t speak to others’ experience or make grand points. I’m not even sure what I’m even saying about mine, but mentioning it seems important.

Chapter 8: Biology.

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Chapter 6: The Age of Consent

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

Rage is the simplest response to Jonathan, and for a while it was mine. As we fell over the years into non-overlapping peer groups, connected only by fragile silence, it subsided to be replaced with disdain. He left school at 16 without ever coming out, shaved legs and a gaggle of female friends declaring for him what he couldn’t, and is now a hairdresser; I resented, I think, that someone who had the balls to snatch at mine was so pathetically timid about what made his own dick hard. Assaulting me was the most audacity he ever managed, and a chapter in this book’s all he’ll ever be – the truth is, he no longer matters enough to hate.

My anger hasn’t mellowed, but it has found better targets. I’ve made Jonathan a villain as compellingly satanic as he was when I was twelve, so it’s only natural reader-responses have focused on him. (Was he punished? Does he know I’ve written of him? What was his real name?) But there are better things to ask about, because what he did was just one gory detail in a much bigger picture.

I’d be lying if I said I that in my early teens, I never casually groped anyone the way straight boys, joking at least ostensibly, groped me – not a calculated or sadistic touch like Jonathan’s had been, but still uninvited and unwelcome. I’m positive they did as much or worse to the girls in our year, believing honestly – as for a time, I did - that this was just how flirting worked. Jonathan was special only in that he knew what he was doing, and even then, he’d seen encroaching physically as an acceptable come-on while we were friends.

If he took harassment to an extreme, it’s partly because none of us knew what sexual assault was to begin with. Nothing about the theory of consent or practice of not touching-without-asking came up in what sex ed we’d had. Biology made it all about how mums and dads made babies, and Mrs Swainson, who spent at least the first third of each French lesson discussing being head of PSHE, was too beside herself about having the job to do it properly. (If she had, I might have recognised lines like ‘I know you love it’ and ‘That means you like it’ from my own experience for what they were.) In my final years at Keswick School, I learnt about female pupils boys there had assaulted, convinced what they were doing was fine. Even as this unsettles me, I find it unsurprising.

Violence of that sort wasn’t discussed except clandestinely by those who knew the girls; I’ve no idea how much went on that I didn’t hear of. My assault could never have been dealt with formally, since that would have meant discussing it, and talking about sex attacks as real – queer sex attacks at that – would have been as out of keeping with the ethos of respectability that held sway as high heels and untucked shirts. (At that stage, of course, I’d have been terrified to mention being anything except straight to a teacher in the first place.)

Jonathan was just one product of that place, which prided itself on clinging to a long-dead age of values and traditions. Its own included homophobia and prudishness, and so it could never have weathered an age of consent.

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

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Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

Jonathan’s surname was next to mine on the register, so we met at the beginning of Year 7 when seating plans put us together. That I don’t retain much memory of our friendship shows it was the kind eleven year olds form when they have to, determined in my case and I suspect in his to bond with peers after an isolated time at primary school. We probably first spoke in physics when one of us needed a pen, after which, since I was brighter and more attentive, I offered help and shared my answers with him.

Both of us were sore thumbs. Beside being clever and unpalatably desperate to prove it, with clothes that didn’t fit and a nasal voice, I’d inherited my parents’ foreign name and home counties accent, sounding unlike almost anybody else. (As soon as I found out it made me posh that I said Alexander as in ‘half’, I’d dropped the second part of my first name.) Jonathan, for his part, spoke like a hairdresser and sang like Whitney Houston – so although he was built not unlike our year group’s rugby players, he would never have passed.

When we hung about at lunch (you had to hang about with someone), walking around the netball courts, those were the boys we attempted to avoid. I hadn’t felt attraction in any sense, adult or adolescent, at that stage, but gay was still something other people were and not that I could be. Somehow it clicked immediately that Jonathan was one of those people. When I’d used femme to provoke in infant school it had been self-assured, but his camp had an uncomfortable quality, smarmy, laboured and affected as if to state something unspeakable.

There were times when he more or less said it, in fact, though discreetly and only to me. I am _ay, he wrote once inside his homework planner, one letter obscured, tilting the book toward my gaze in history; ‘It is a he’, he said on another occasion of his crush once I’d fessed up to having none. ‘It’s you’, he added.

I wasn’t hostile toward gay people – since only other people were, it was just obvious to me I wasn’t. I assumed it would be just as obvious to him, though I had to deal him so on my twelfth birthday when he pinned me to the floor, hips locked together after ogling a muscle-bound film star. I’d been just as ill at ease on one of our earlier sleepovers when he’d asked to see my dick, although it didn’t stop me letting him under my quilt.

I can’t remember what it was specifically that made me stop wanting to be Jonathan’s friend. Partly I’m sure, it was that even though we never talked about it, he couldn’t take no for an answer when it came to us being anything more; partly that I preferred being alone to spending time with someone so much less intelligent than me; partly my snobbery. (His family, while better off than mine, watched Pop Idol and ate takeaways.) I’m sure, too, that the homophobia of other boys played a part – with which, half bowing to pressure and half trying to create some distance, I’m sorry to say I joined in at times. When finally I said insistently that I no longer liked him, he shouted as I walked away that a lonely life awaited me.

 

In the year that followed, Jonathan made me regret both ditching him, as he put it, and siding with the boys who teased him. At the start the animosity was was mutual – I made fun of him, refused to speak to him in class (alphabetic seating meant we still sat together) and berated him for not paying attention – but he quickly became creative.

In the lessons where he sat to my right, he would swing his elbow against mine over and over so my work became illegible, buried under a web of skewed lines where my arm had been knocked, pen still touching page. Red patches formed where he hit me, arms and face, with plastic rulers. He would coat his fingers, whose wider-than-long nails I distinctly remember, in his own saliva and smear it onto mine, into my ears or on one occasion into my mouth; the latter made me retch and sob, and Jonathan enjoyed this greatly.

He passed notes describing me in the most colourfully violent language he could manage, grabbed the lunch from my hand and cast it into the dustbin; opened my rucksack as I walked, so worksheets and folders fell out across the corridor; took it from me and dropped it from a storey-high wall. He kicked me regularly in the small of the back, at times refusing to walk ahead of me so as to keep doing so, used his weight to knock me into the corridor wall and once – when in games class, I swatted at him with a tennis racquet’s catgut centre – grinned, excited, before hitting me so hard with the aluminium edge of his that a blue-black swelling formed round my left eye socket and remained there for a week.

Among Jonathan’s favourite techniques, one more form of the encroaching physicality I knew from being his friend, was sliding over into my chair and forcing me to occupy only half of it. This was especially effective when I sat against the wall, since it meant I had nothing to do but sit with one hip on my seat, legs twisted on top of one another, and on a coach trip to Austria where he sat next to me I spent the best part of 36 sleepless hours in this position.

As the Easter break approached midway through Year 8 it was agreed I’d move into a different class, limiting Jonathan’s access to me severely. He didn’t respond well to learning this.

 

In Miss Pattinson’s absence, Robert Ingles, whose love of a homophobic god I’ve yet to discover, is taking the last lesson of the term – German, fifth period, Friday. Work’s been set, routine attempts at getting the supply teacher off track have failed and the room has settled into idle chatter. It’s not loud, but it’s loud enough that although we’re sat in the front row, he can’t hear anything Jonathan and I say.

Nor does he notice I’m hemmed in against the window. Jonathan takes up the right hand half of my chair, forcing me to sit on my right hip, crushed into space that I don’t have. His left leg is wound under my right knee, holding it with constricting force against his right so that I’m unable to move. ‘You’re not stronger than me’, he tells me without needing to when I attempt it.

If Mr Ingles glanced upward, he might only see a pupil leaning in to compare answers with a friend; wouldn’t see that even as I try to shift away, Jonathan’s thigh is glued to mine. Certainly in such close quarters and with blazers hanging between and behind, no one makes out his hand as it snakes in between my kneecaps, making its way up my leg.

This has taken perhaps ten or fifteen minutes – long enough for me to register surprise I can still feel my thigh as well as sickness. Every inch of me is retreating, spine twisted to provide as much distance as I can manage, but Jonathan moves off only in intervals, touching repeatedly and slowly so I don’t get used to it. ‘Just say you like me’, he offers, ‘and I’ll stop.’

Mouth dry, face hot and red, throat fighting a lump, I splutter that he turns my stomach – that he’ll never force me to like him, no matter how much hitting, crushing or groping. ‘I might as well try’ he sings back, and adds that mentioning the latter means I like it. Back his arm goes, confident now and expelling whatever air I still have left for speech. ‘I know you love it’, he tells me.

When after that his hand moves to my groin and he asks me if I’m hard, there’s nothing I can do but choke. (Since a body is a body, I am, and he knows it.) When he asks, excited, how I’ll react if he undoes the zip there, there’s nothing I can do but sob, and so he does. Fighting metal teeth and buttons, stubby fingers work their way inside, find what they’re looking for and go to work.

I’m still not sure, ten years later, if the fierce, instinctive rush that makes me force his arm away is a first orgasm. Whatever it is, it’s enough that Jonathan doesn’t resist my weak effort – he knows this is victory and I’m humiliated. ‘Oh look’, he remarks audibly to me once the bell rings, though I’ve managed to rearrange things. ‘Your flies are undone. Wonder why.’

I still hear Jonathan cat-calling my name from across the sports fields as I walk to the gate – still feel the urge to break, to weep, though at my body seems devoid of any sort of fluid. (In one sense, this is fortunate.) For my lift home, I sit polite and make small talk. It’s only when I get in through the door, alone, that I let myself snap, hurling keys across the living room in a single raw scream-gasp.

In some ways I’ve lived past this. In others I haven’t. But one thought remains that sickens me.

This was my first sexual experience.

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

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Chapter 2: Other Boys

Chapter 1: Starman.

Between Top of the Pops clips and Mum’s wicker basket of cassettes, most of the music I heard as a child was decades old. Somehow or other, I was still exposed to Steps. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose records remain catchy even if tasteless, they’re impossible to appreciate now except ironically – but the nineties were a decade without irony, so their videos were inescapable. Watching the dark-haired male band member, dance-proficient but somehow obviously out of place, was how I first sensed the awkwardness of straight men.

Not that I could have said so at the time. Most straights, at least until they meet someone like me, don’t see straightness as something they need a word for, or straight as something they are just as the rest of us are other things. Only in the adult years since I’ve been out have family started to see themselves as having orientations of their own; for many, the definitive identity is just ‘not gay’. Even after I learnt about people who were, I had no corresponding label for other boys – how they, like the man in Steps, appeared to have been starched on the inside. Even then, it wasn’t something I was.

Once ‘gay’ meant anything, it meant people unlike me or anyone I knew. At school, I grasped it was embarrassing and could be caught in the sports field by sitting one end of a graffitied boulder. I grasped too from words scrawled in silver marker there that the girl version was ‘lesbian’: months after I caught sight of Ziggy Stardust Britain’s first series of Big Brother aired, and I was able to correct Mum’s jargon when she told me Anna Nolan, the guitar-playing ex-nun who came second, was ‘one of the people who we call gay’. Many such failed attempts at positivity would follow, but her opinions always came and went.

Mum was wary of homosexuals as she more often called them, making the first half rhyme with ‘promo’ as if forcing her mouth around something unsavoury. An arch-backed Mick Jagger walk I tried on at the age of nine was discouraged as ‘the way some men who are ho-mo-sexual walk’, and I was warned of vague but ominous results if they should see me. In the novel she’d set out to write a few years earlier, ‘Carl, a sadistic homosexual’ threatened the female protagonist’s young son, and I was told to stay away from Eric, a clerk at the local video shop she said had asked to see contents of a young boy’s trousers since he was ‘a homosexual’.

There were other times. Mum taught me AIDS ‘came from the gay community’ and that ‘the easiest way to get AIDS [was] to have sex with a bisexual man’. (By the time I’d grown up, to my annoyance, she’d forgotten bisexual men existed.) ‘I just get worried when you start fancying men’ she commented when, aiming to describe her view of him, I called Richard E. Grant sexy. ‘I didn’t know I was homophobic’, she later said, ‘till I discovered Graham Norton.’ ‘I don’t like gays’, she added. From my late teens she would present herself as a gay ally, but I was never quite convinced.

Where all this came from, I can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, I think she meant it when she claimed to be supportive; she was simply never all that good at having a consistent outlook. Doubtless the background bigotry of a life that had started in the forties played its part. On top of that, I’ve wondered if her desire for a heterosexual son arose from fears of proving right Freudian clichés – or rather, late Thatcherite ones – about the spawn of single mothers. Nor can I ignore the god she turned to in that hour of need, or at least the fans of his whom she fell in with in the pews.

How they met initially I don’t recall, but between the ages of roughly five and eleven, lifts were provided when we needed transportation by a woman called Gill Linder. Though they never attended the same church, Gill – whose farmhouse was lined wall to wall with her own religious art, an exsanguinating Jesus displayed over the guest bed – was for much of this time one of my mother’s closest friends. I’m almost certain some of the homophobia she spewed was parroted from their relationship, as was her then-staunch belief in Satan’s presence in our home. (I was once told, and earnestly believed, that he’d possessed me.)

Somewhat more charmingly, her charismatic congregation at the time was headed by a pastor named McDonald, whose impassioned wife Lynda I’m told railed wildly against gay people, oral sex and presumably all forms of eros not involving semen entering a vagina. (If menopause came as a relief for them, it never showed.) The Allens, another fiftysomething couple in that very married church, left town while I was in primary school, and it was only in my twenties I discovered Mike had ‘struggled’ with feelings for other men.

Whoever the homosexuals were who all these people talked about so much, Eric aside, they were dark, distant and mysterious creatures. I could no more be gay than any of the other boys. All the same, I liked not being like them.

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

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Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich

Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.

Overture

We are angry with ourselves’, Suzanne Moore of New Humanist and other zines wrote this time last year of women, ‘for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ The article, on female rage, was well received barring this line; friends recommending the piece bristled at it, if only as a caveat. They had cause to: so idolised are the bodies of trans women that hundreds are murdered yearly in Brazil, among them 39-year-old nightlife figure Madona, pelted with paving bricks until her skull fractured.

Moore might have copped to misjudging a punchline. Who hasn’t? Instead she aired on Twitter her ‘issues with trans anything’, accusing trans women of ‘fucking lopping bits of your body’ and ‘using “intersectionality” to shut down debate’, adding ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’

Julie Burchill, long time colleague and friend of Moore, promptly championed her in the Observer, declaring her in a piece titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ to have been ‘driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. ‘A gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write’, Burchill continued, ‘looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.’ The two of them, she declared, were in a ‘stand-off with the trannies’ (‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims’), ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

The ensuing storm, in which the Observer withdrew the article, apologising, raged through the British press and global blogosphere. (Zinnia Jones’ partner Heather McNamara had this to say.) Days later, Soho Skeptics hosted Moore in a debate about press freedom. I arrived a quarter of an hour late, but despite the then-ongoing furore heard no mention of the issue – save Moore’s offhand quip at one point, ‘I can’t say anything.’ Laughter followed.

Elsewhere in her article, Burchill had written:

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel, picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

Bindel, whose columns on transgender themes have earned her infamy, seems as obsessed as Moore and Burchill with trans women’s nether regions, describing them in 2004 as ‘men disposing of their genitals’. (This is, needless to say, inaccurate in every possible sense. Vaginoplasty, which doesn’t discard the penis, is expensive, inaccessible and often withheld from those who want it. Many don’t.) Transitional surgery, she insists despite all this, ‘is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’, thrust globally on unwilling gays and lesbians as it is in Iran to keep everyone suitably straight.

Regarding what’s wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. It ignores:

  • the persistent denial of trans men and women’s gender, including by Bindel herself.
  • the unwillingness of countless health authorities to provide surgery or offer it at all.
  • the fact anyone might want it.
  • that seeking it is typically done after lengthy thought.
  • that not everyone transitioning does want surgery.
  • that those who do don’t always want normative-looking outcomes, or vaginoplasty specifically.
  • that not everyone trans, seeking surgery or not, identifies binarily as male or female.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, any more gender-conforming than cis people.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, heterosexual.

Like Burchill and Moore, Bindel is talking bollocks. No one with even surface-level knowledge here, and mine’s not hugely better, could think she had more to contribute than hot, poisonous air. Understandable, then, that hackles rose when Soho Skeptics – the group that hosted Moore months earlier – announced her as a speaker last September.

‘The Battle Over Gender’

‘Insults, threats and abuse have been hurled between trans activists and radical feminists for the past few years’, read their blurb promoting the event, chaired by Gia Milinovich with Bindel and trans panellists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black. ‘Neither side is innocent.’

These statements and the title suggest equivalence, like clashes between the world’s Bindels, Burchills or Moores and trans communities were arbitrary fiascos with no victim or aggressor – like trans users on the business end of their abuse, however intemperate their response, were just as much at fault. The Bindelites claim, as Piers Morgan did this month, to be under attack, but their viewpoint rests on demonstrable falsehoods. They’re as qualified to hold forth on (trans) gender as Ken Ham is to address a conference of geologists, and Ham, despite his manifold shortcomings, hasn’t victimised his targets nearly as much.

The meeting, it appears, was devised in response to anger at Suzanne Moore. ‘One female writer’ whom she knew, Milinovich wrote in October, ‘got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people’ – no name is given, but Moore’s is a likely guess. ‘After [an] explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it. When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion . . . My aim [there] was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.’

You’d conclude from this Milinovich, established in the skeptic scene, linked to Bindel apparently through Moore and with views not far flung from the former’s (see below), was the architect of the event – conflicting, seemingly, with Soho Skeptics convenor Martin Robbins’ statements that ‘trans people [were] in a key role’, ‘in charge’ and ‘helped organise and select people’, and ‘Bindel was there because the trans people on the panel [Dalton and Black] wanted it’. The Pod Delusion’s audio upload also described it as being ‘put together by Gia Milinovich’, who comments therein, ‘I thought, oh my God, I have got to have this woman on the panel.’

Clarity would help, but it’s easy in any case to see why giving her equal – or any – time made Twitter’s so called “trans cabal” irate. Their very existence, trans women’s especially, is in Bindel’s eyes oppressive, mutilatory and wrong, a stance whose premises have been thoroughly tanked but which she broadcasts through global media.

Milinovich and Robbins balked when critics mauled them for debating trans people’s right to such existence – as if the only obstacles to it were outright demands for killing. Milinovich, specifically, cites my tweet to that effect, one from a storm of users’, in a blog post, handle and avatar blurred out. (What for, the original being public and a Google search away, I still can’t tell.) Both have insisted the meeting wasn’t ‘a debate’; accurate but beside the point. ‘Debate’ was a verb in the tweets at hand, slamming the academic examination of trans identities’ validity and legitimisation of Bindel’s concoctions.


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Defining terms

Milinovich is taking heat at present for insisting, since this event, on the adroitness of terms like ‘female biology’, arguing implicitly that feminism should devote itself to this by using sex-based definitions of ‘women’s bodies’, and explicitly that abortion access and vulval/clitoral genital mutilation are by definition ‘female’ issues due to the relevant anatomy. ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

‘During the [Battle Over Gender] panel,’ she wrote back in October in a post making similar arguments, ‘I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender.’ There’s already a contradiction here: if ‘woman’ is a term of identity and not anatomy, Milinovich shouldn’t refer (as she does here) to ‘women’s bodies’ as physically distinct. Regardless, here’s what she said on introducing the event.

‘Sex’: we all know what it is, but I’m talking biology, so what sex are you? This is ‘male’ and ‘female’ (so, ‘male’ has XY chromosomes and ‘female’, XX chromosomes), so I’ve gone to a book called Developmental Biology, Sixth Edition – this is for a definition. They’re talking about mammals, and I think it’s important we always remember that we’re mammals, and not something special even though we think we are. A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts and mammary glands. In many mammal species, each sex has a specific size, vocal cartilage and musculature. So we’re talking biology when we use the word ‘sex’. We’re talking biology.

Another word is ‘gender’. Quite often these two words are conflated, so I’ve gone to the World Health Organisation for a definition of this. The World Health Organisation says gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. So in our society, traditionally and stereotypically, women wear a dress . . . and have long hair and men wear trousers and have short hair. Men go out to work and earn loads of money and women stay home, and are deeply fulfilled by looking after their children. (Can you see my cynicism coming in here?) If women work, they obviously will earn less than men. Women are caring and empathic, men are rational and they’re leaders. Women can’t do maths and men can.

Now, all of these things including the maths are social constructions. If you look at different cultures, you will see different things. Now, it’s really easy to understand this when you think about clothing, right? There’s no place in the brain that makes a female innately want to wear a dress or have long hair. Or there’s no place in a male brain that they innately want to wear trousers and have short hair. So that’s quite understandable, you know – we know that these are social constructions. It’s a little bit more difficult for some people to understand that things like personality traits or maths ability and things like that are social constructions, and they differ in different cultures. Very simply, you can think of gender as masculine and feminine, and all of the stereotypes.

Does anyone find any of those two definitions controversial? Anyone?

Yes.

For a start, neither of these defines ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Milinovich states ‘sex’ to mean anatomical ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, and ‘gender’ to mean ‘roles . . . society considers appropriate for men and women’ – but doesn’t define manhood or womanhood itself.

What we have is confused and inconsistent use of several definitions.

What is consistent is her stance ‘that Biological Sex is A Real Thing and Gender is Culture’; that ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes, with ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, prediscursively exist like hydrogen or Pluto. The thought, whatever the views she draws from it, has been seconded in British skepticism’s blogosphere, amid insistence ‘discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia.’ It’s wrong: the claim gender’s between our ears and sex between our legs is one long since unravelled by better thinkers than me.

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

The status of Pluto isn’t one on which the wellbeing of millions rests. We get to choose how we frame things, bodies included. If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say. If that’s not cause enough to modify her model, surely coherence is?

‘If you want to reclassify Males and Females, and redefine Vaginas and Penises’, she tells her critics, ‘then you’re going to have to [do so] in over 5,000 different species of animals from Mammalia on down. So… good luck with that.’ Far be it from science ever to revise its thoughts or language, but in any case, her attitude to the latter doesn’t, in my view, hold water.

Sex is derived from gender

It’s just as ambitious trying to untether ‘male/female’ from ‘man/woman’, as Milinovich declares is necessary. When she writes in her October post of ‘two male comedians [and] one female writer’, she fails at this herself. It’s difficult to blame her: broadly, these terms just are synonymous.

Zoologists didn’t coin ‘male’ or ‘female’. The argument above, and her caution to ‘remember that we’re mammals’, suggest these designations fell to us from neighbours (or ancestors) in the animal kingdom. The reality is the reverse: said designations operated for humans millennia before we studied sex – chromosomes, internal organs, gametes, hormones – or exported that study to other species.

The ‘we’ here is a specific one. The models of sex that ruled till recently, for which Milinovich argues, grew up in gender-binary cultures. Had societies of more than men and women written the papers that inform popular thought – if views of anatomy today were based on theirs – would they have spoken of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies? Would we, now?

It should be clear we’re trying, through the model of male/female sex, to describe bodies in pre-existing terms. If, as was traditionally thought and seems to be the Bindel-Milinovich view, gender evolved to regulate sexed bodies, why does it account so badly for them? Why, if it evolved to correspond with anatomic traits, are some ‘ambiguous’ – inexplicable, that is, in terms of it? Why intersex, but no orthodox ‘intergender’ to match?

‘Yes’, says Milinovich, ‘I know about intersex conditions’ – then leaves it there. She seems not to consider themes that follow logically:

  • why one anomaly makes someone intersex, another, just unusual.
  • whether if ‘intersex’ is taxing to define, sex might be too.
  • how the sex dyad, if less descriptive than once thought, became ubiquitous.
  • that the a priori (fe)maleness of body traits might be debatable.
  • why some, again, are sexed more strictly than others.

Milinovich’s stance and statements shift demonstrably. The impression I can’t help being left with is that her output, more certain of itself than it is well-informed, fits most definitions of ‘splaining’. If her goal is a feminism of ‘female’ (in her terms) anatomy, I’m further struck, she makes no obvious mention of how trans men might be included – suggesting, conceivably, that it is to her a movement for those marked physically and socially as female: that is, cis women.

The entire concept of “sex”’, to quote the Tranarchism blog, ‘is simply a way of attaching something social – gender – to bodies.’ The addendum, lastly, is quotable and appropriate:

The most sensible way to look at the question of sex now is this: a male body is a body belonging to a male – that is someone who identifies as male. A female body is a body belonging to a female – that is, someone who identifies as female. Genderqueer bodies belong to folks who are genderqueer, androgynous bodies belong to androgynes, and so forth, and so on.

Coda

Any number of thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

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No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV

Not many know gay marriage is a legacy of AIDS. Attempts by same-sex couples at the turn of the nineties to have partnerships legally recognised – in Denmark, New York, Hawaii – were prompted, in the words of the New York Times, by an epidemic that ‘brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds’. The argument gained ground, in fact, that pushing institutions of monogamy would stem the flow of HIV. ‘[I]n the wake of AIDS’, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic, it would ‘qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.’

On calling gay marriage reactionary and citing this in evidence, I’ve been accused of gravedigging – unearthing arguments now twenty-five years old and foisting them anachronistically on current debates, regardless of historical context. But Sullivan’s logic never went away: it’s led to his acknowledgement in U.S. media as the contemporary gay agenda’s author, and is visible today all over moves for marriage reform.

‘LGBT history will be made’, the Advocate reported only yesterday, ‘on January 1, 2014, when a same-sex wedding takes place atop the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float during the 125th Rose Parade[.]

‘The wedding between Aubrey Loots and Danny Leclair, both gay men from Los Angeles, will be a first for the Rose Parade. The couple’s display of their love and commitment to one another invokes the parade’s 2014 theme, “Dreams Come True,” as well as the theme of the AHF’s float entry, “Love is the Best Protection,” which aims to celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men. The Foundation’s float will be designed to resemble a wedding cake, with each couple tying the knot atop the float as living cake-toppers.’

Setting aside this terrifying image, suggesting as it does some hideous gay version of the Hunger Games – ‘the best protection’? Really?

‘Love’ doesn’t equal the promise of monogamy; to say so is in the first place a fool’s errand, and an unkind one at that. But neither protects against transmission anyway. How have Catholic doctrines of sex within marriage worked out in countries with HIV-AIDS epidemics? How did chastity work out for those infected by a loved and trusted partner? How did vilifying ‘promiscuity among some homosexuals’, painting AIDS as the fruit of sexual immorality, work out for Catholic Sullivan himself, found posting Craigslist ads in 2001 for unprotected anal sex with ‘other HIV-positive men’? If he couldn’t practise what he preached, why take for granted lesser mortals will?

That spouses play around, with or without permission, isn’t news. Expecting they won’t amounts to abstinence-based disease prevention, which the AHF need only turn on the news to see in action. If not out of deeply conservative sexual ethics, why expect us all to swear monogamy anyway, when prophylactics infinitely more effective exist? Public health is guarded best by public measures, not the pretence of private virtue – in this case, access to condoms, sex education and healthcare and funds for medical research. And are those who do want to make vows prevented by not having them state-recognised? Does monogamy’s achievability depend somehow on access to a civil register?

In a Telegraph column this May that replicated almost exactly Sullivan’s original case, claiming ‘marriage acts as a “commitment device”, encouraging fidelity and discouraging high-risk behaviour’, David Skelton tacked on perhaps the most bizarre argument yet: that ‘[b]y making clear that gay people are fully equal members of society, equal marriage could also help to reduce the level of alienation felt by some young gay people’ – thus, presumably, quash their pursuit of risky activities as a contrived form of self-harm.

Neil Giuliano of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed much the same in the Huffington Post a month later, writing ‘When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression and isolation among gay people – particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: these activities lead to more cases of HIV.

‘On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.’

What data does Giuliano cite so ostentatiously? A study from 2009 at Emory University suggesting, in his words and its authors’, that constitutional bans on gay marriage in U.S. states ‘raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people’. Without, admittedly, having viewed the paper in detail, the nationwide infection rate according to Wikipedia is 0.6 percent, meaning the rise in question would push numbers from 600 per 100,000 to – wait for it – 604.

A fringe subculture of deliberate infection does exist, but the impression’s hard to avoid that Skelton and Giuliano are reaching opportunistically for any way to praise gay marriage, no matter how baseless or co-optative. According to government figures from 2010, UK diagnoses more than doubled between 1995 and 2009. This period saw Britain’s age of consent equalised, Section 28 scrapped and civil partnerships introduced, greater media visibility for LGBT people and falls in the prevalence of homophobic attitudes, all uncontroversially steps toward ‘bring[ing] people in from the margins’. If none of them stifled HIV transmission, why would marriage reform today? Persuading oneself it’ll solve a slew of other problems is a nice way of making the workload appear smaller while taking no material action.

We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t. Things that may actually help aren’t just condoms and clean needles, sex ed, med research and so on, vital as those are; they’re housing, healthcare and community support for those who fall into sex work, self-harm, drug use or homelessness, services Britain’s government cuts to the bone while commending itself for legalising gay.

A gay rights lobby that applauds it and others like it is one thing – but claiming cynically while doing so that marriage holds the key to HIV prevention is a fiction adding insult to infection.

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