Is gender inherently oppressive?

In the founding principles of this blog, I wrote that I want to help build a world where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. While that is undoubtedly easier said than done, it always struck me as a rather uncontroversial ambition. Who could disagree?

I appreciate that the debates around the nature of gender vis-a-vis sex, essentialism, binaries and spectrums are immensely difficult and opaque. Alex Gabriel ran an excellent blog this week spelling out why even the simplistic separations of male against female or biology against social construction are often inadequate or misleading. I don’t intend to delve into any of that, when others can explain it much better than I could.

One thing that has become apparent from recent ideological wrangles within feminism is that there is a significant bloc for whom the problem is not gender discrimination, gender inequality or gender-based oppression, but gender itself. It’s an argument that was laid out with unusual clarity by the feminist blogger Marina S this week. It seemed worth exploring just why I disagree with her so strongly. Her piece, entitled ‘What gender is and what gender isn’t‘ begins with a claim that had me screaming NO!

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

She expands on the point with respect to sexual libido and career choices, but the premise is the same. Gender, she argues, is not a politically neutral identity or psychological and social trait that has been exploited to create arbitrary and artificial divisions.Gender is inherently hierarchical and oppressive, and is an assignation from which violence and economic exploitation inevitably flows. The goal of feminism, then, must not be just the elimination of gender inequality or gender oppression, but that abolition of gender itself.

The consequences of this thinking are profound. The most obvious victims are trans people whose very existence is of course denied by this logic. I don’t think it is a very subtle political model either. It would preclude hegemonic power dynamics that oppress men and boys in parallel to those oppressing women and girls. At a more trivial and superficial level, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly desirable utopia. I like living in a world of diversity and a society with a broad spectrum of gender, like a spectrum of sexuality, ideology, physicality, psychology and ideology feels healthier to me than a monoculture. I don’t want to live in a world of the gender equivalent of the Mao suit.

For all that, if Marina is right that gender is inherently and inevitably oppressive, it would be something that should profoundly influence our gender politics. So while I don’t want it to be true, could she be right?

At the heart of her blog is a long analogy to slavery. She is saying that just as skin colour was arbitrarily made into a delineator between slave-class and slave-owning class; so was binary biological sex made into a delineator between dominant class and subordinate class.

It seems to me that this analogy already contains a significant counter-argument. While she is entirely right to say that social divisions of oppression are arbitrary, they invariably have some sort of rationale. So while there might have been a brief period of Greek history where (literally) anyone could be a slave and anyone a slave-owner, for the vast bulk of human history, there have been other arbitrary divisions as to who could or could not be a slave – a conquered enemy, a criminal, a member of another tribe, another religion, another race. All those distinctions are arbitrary. All are (at least partially) socially constructed. All are reified and made real within the social and political realm. If our culture has shed the assumption that it is reasonable to make someone a slave if they were born on the other side of the river or practice a different type of prayer, could we not similarly shed the assumptions of hierarchical power we attach to gender?

The real meat of the argument comes later. I can only address it by quoting it at length. It begins here:

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact.

(I agree)

The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other.

(I agree)

 However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.

WOAH, no, stop right there!

Who is saying that physical sex is not really real? Is anyone making that argument? From my understanding of post-Butler, post-structural feminism, the argument is 1/ That the absolute binary of sex is not really real – the idea that all the world’s population can be easily and accurately divided (by anyone) into ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a myth, and 2/ That people are oppressed on the basis of gender and that many (not all) of the dynamics of patriarchal oppression relate to gender (the collective social), not sex (the individual physicality).

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.

Is this true? I don’t see it. To take her analogy literally, I would aver that even those who claim not to see a binary of biological sex don’t go so far as insisting that therefore differences in sex don’t exist.

Sex exists. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

(I agree)

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.

Here’s my huge problem. I don’t think anyone is trying to theorise sex out of existence. However I do see people attempting to theorise gender out of existence, right here in front of me, and to theorise gender out of existence is to deny that gender oppression, including transphobia, can exist. It is to refuse to accept that trans people exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly surgically transformed, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. And all the rest of it.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a – relatively minor – entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

I ask again, who is saying women do not exist? I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen many people deny that trans people exist, who insist they are delusional, insane or sexual fetishists. Those hateful charges do not spring from thin air, but from an ideological well in which gender has been wished away and we are defined purely by the categorisation of our bodies.

After all this, I am still genuinely trying to understand why it should be that gender is inherently oppressive. I don’t see it. Marina argues well that to deny the existence of womanhood would be oppressive, but nobody is denying the existence of womanhood. At most, they are claiming that womanhood is not necessarily restricted to biological essentialism. Is womanhood somehow degraded or nullified by the inclusion of trans women? I’ve seen that argument made in its bigoted glory elsewhere, but I don’t think it is the case being made here and nor, I think, is it especially compelling.

For what it is worth, my hunch remains that gender, sex and sexuality continue to circle around each other like the rings of a gyroscope – related, independent, often overlapping, sometimes far removed. The only time any of them becomes oppressive in itself is when we insist they must all align.

Some important findings from the ONS crime stats: Intimate & sexual violence

The Office for National Statistics have published the latest crime statistics for England and Wales. As they do almost invariably, the mainstream media have published selected figures without any trends or historical context, to provide alarming headlines. Typically, the Guardian proclaims “Domestic violence experienced by 30% of female population, survey shows.”

It is true, after a fashion, if one chooses to define domestic violence as any one single adult lifetime incident of emotional or financial abuse, threat or minor force’ by any partner or family member. That is not, however, how most people (including most agencies and academics) would choose to define domestic violence. The total is here


If we look at the table which breaks down the experience of all those victims, a rather less dramatic picture emerges.


This shows a couple of interesting things. The first is that only about a third of all victims reported any instance of severe force or serious sexual assault. Of course some forms of non-physical abuse can be devastating and terrifying, but it is important to note that the reality of the data is not quite as dramatic as headlines would suggest.

The second notable thing here, I think, is that while (as most of us realise) female victims of most forms of intimate violence are more numerous, male victims here were much more likely to report having experienced severe force as women. This doesn’t match the stereotype which paints male violence as severe and frightening, and women’s as trivial acts of self-defence.

Where headlines like the Guardian’s really slip up though, is in hiding the trends. You really wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but we are in the midst of an ongoing and dramatic decline in partner violence. A rather more appropriate headline would be: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AT AN ALL TIME LOW. You could go further. Partner violence is at an all time low. Sexual violence is at an all time low. Stalking is at an all time low. Domestic homicides are at an all time low. And if you’re wondering, for male victims the rates hit an all time low in 2010/11 and have remained roughly constant since.

As these tables show, both male and female victimisation has dropped by about 20-25% over the past decade. (Regular readers will know that the decade prior to that saw even more dramatic declines. Partner violence was at its peak in the mid 90s) The trend is probably clearest on physical violence, but even sexual violence against women is now at the lowest point since records began.


The trend is even more marked in the domestic partner homicide figures. There were 75 women killed by partners and ex-partners last year, and 15 men. In 2004/5 the equivalent numbers were 106 and 39. It goes without saying that any homicide is one too many, but it would be wilfully obtuse to ignore the good news here. (Should also be pointed out that figures are just about the only police stat that can be relied upon for accuracy.)


Elsewhere in the data, another couple of statistics that intrigue me, because they are so unexpected. If anyone can offer credible explanations, I’m all ears.


First, it appears that the majority of serious sexual assaults on women are committed by strangers. This flies in the face of received wisdom, which holds that women are much more likely to be raped or seriously sexually assaulted by their partners, loved ones and acquaintances. Look


The only explanation I can offer is that the dramatic improvement in rates of domestic and relationship violence – including much improved capacity and greater willingness of people to leave abusive relationships – mean that those types of assaults have become less common, while frequency of stranger attacks have remained broadly unchanged. I had a quick look at the stats from last year, and they were heading in the same direction, which would confirm that.

One final point regards the consequences of intimate violence on the victims. A point I’ve often seen raised in relation to male victims is that compared to their female equivalents, they are less likely to live in fear and terror, less likely to be traumatised, and are therefore in less need of support, protection and services.

Well the CSEW asks a question in that vein, and it turns out that yes – male victims are less likely to have lasting psychological damage from their abuse – but the difference is marginal.


In a nutshell, 4 out of 10 female victims have lasting psychological impacts, but so do 3 out of 10 men. Five women in a hundred feel suicidal, so do three men in a hundred. Yes, there are differences there, but I’d suggest they are not dramatic enough to really operate as justification for any kind of discriminatory policy.

Some final notes on the CSEW, from which these stats are drawn. For those who don’t know, it is a survey of around 50,000 people and is one of the best regarded, most reliable victim surveys in the world. But it is not perfect. There are problems with it – notably it misses data from people on the margins of society, who are temporarily homeless or who have chaotic lifestyles. There are always doubts about the accuracy and honesty of subjects’ reporting in surveys like this. There is a particular issue with the intimate violence modules, which is that it does not record high multiples of instances – it is counting the numbers of victims, not the numbers of incidents. So the CSEW does not really pick up on rates of systematic coercive controlling violence which (some researchers claim) is the type of DV which is most likely to be male perpetrator – female victim.

For all that, what the CSEW does do is provide really quite reliable data on trends. Whatever doubts we may have about total counts and some of the details, I’d be pretty confident that what this survey is telling us about the long-term trends is pretty much true. And that really is good news, whatever you might read in the newspaper.

Breaking the silence on male abuse victims.

You may recall a few months ago I was helping Survivors Manchester to lobby government for access to funding for male rape  victims, who were explicitly excluded from the large Rape Support Fund.

I’m delighted to let you know that today the Ministry of Justice announced a new dedicated fund for male victims or rape and sexual assault. They are also throwing their weight behind Survivors Manchester’s #BreakTheSilence social media campaign. I was asked to write something for the Independent today, which was one of the most gratifying commissions I’ve had for a while.

First published at the Independent



Today’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice of a new fund for male victims of rape and sexual violence is hugely significant.

The significance is not in the sum of money. While £500,000 is more than welcome, and will make a huge difference to the funded organisations and their clients, nobody would pretend it can do more than scrape at the scale of a problem which impacts an estimated 72,000 new adult victims every year and untold numbers of children. Nor does the significance lie in acknowledgement of the problem – charities have previously been funded for limited work with male victims, and in the light of historic sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church and social service care homes, no one can plead ignorance as to the extent of horrors involved.

The significance is not even in the campaigning victory of charities like Survivors Manchester, who have fought persistently against the flagrant injustice of male victims being explicitly excluded from funds set up to provide care and support to victims of rape and abuse – although that achievement should not be overlooked. The historic significance of today’s announcement is that it marks the first time that a British government of any stripe has ringfenced any quantity of victim support funding specifically to help men and boys. It may only be half a million quid, but it is a priceless milestone.

Although male victims make up a significant minority of cases of child sex abuse and of adult sexual, domestic and relationship violence, their specific needs and circumstances are often pushed so far to the margins of debate and policy that they all but disappear. In mainstream political and media narratives, the terms sexual violence and relationship violence are taken to be synonymous with the phrase ‘violence against women and girls.’

This has consequences for male victims which go far beyond access to funding and resources. The voices and views of male victims are often excluded from debates about the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes, despite considerable evidence to show there are specific and complex issues around men’s and boys’ willingness to report and testify. Debates around cultures of victim- blaming often focus exclusively on women’s supposed behaviour or appearance, almost never on men’s sexuality, despite extensive evidence that male victims, just like female victims, are commonly assumed to have been ‘asking for it.’

While our society still has a long way to go before it treats the sexual abuse of women with the seriousness it requires, the equivalent journey for men has barely begun. Prison rape jokes in particular are almost ubiquitous. The ugly reality of that issue is stomach-churning rather than comic. One study drew upon interviews with ex-prisoners. The evidence was that while fewer prisoners are raped in British prisons than some people might imagine, those who are victimised are typically singled out for their physical and mental vulnerability and attacked repeatedly by multiple perpetrators. Detailed data on the extent of the problem in the UK remains elusive however because, shockingly, no one has ever commissioned or authorised the research to find out.

A different issue confronts the sizeable minority of male victims whose abusers are female. Despite clinical literature demonstrating that such victims face similar risks to other abuse survivors of post-traumatic symptoms, guilt, emotional and mental health risks and sexual dysfunction, victims often report feeling entirely isolated by a cultural denial of their existence. Boys who are abused by older women are told they should consider themselves lucky or grateful. While there is a large weight of evidence demonstrating that surprisingly large numbers of adult men can be victims of coercive or violent sexual abuse by women, their needs and situations are all but entirely ignored.

Perhaps the strongest argument for reserved funding for male victims is that if government won’t help victims, nobody will. Charities working specifically with male victims tend to be desperately under-funded, the sad truth is that they are not considered the most sympathetic causes. Social psychologists have found that both genders, but especially men, are more likely to give to women in need than to men, which is generally attributed to socialised notions of chivalry. If ever you wanted an example of the feminist dictum that patriarchy hurts men too, it is right here.

Perhaps things are slowly changing. Similar points were made for many years about funding for research into male-specific cancers, but in recent years initiatives like Movember and Men United have brought glimmers of light to the gloom. Alongside the new funding, the Ministry of Justice have thrown their weight behind the survivors’ charities social media campaign, #BreakTheSilence. Further support has come from the cast of Hollyoaks, which is currently running a sensitively-handled storyline of male rape. It is perhaps this gradual, public unlocking of the issue which, more than anything, can bring hope to survivors.

Abuse is not a team game

Like Suzanne Moore, I am in no rush to Tweet or blog my opinions on the allegations made by Dylan Farrow about Woody Allen. Of course I have my own suspicions about the most probable truth of events that occurred in her childhood, but not only am I in no position to do any more than guess, I struggle to see who gains from the kangaroo court of Twitter. The notion that expressing support for the alleged victim will provide comfort and succour to either Farrow herself or victims of sexual abuse at large strikes me as bogus – at the very least I can see how any comfort it might provide is more than cancelled out by the accompanying trivialisation. Likewise, the notion that standing up for Allen strikes a blow for the wrongly accused everywhere.

To make either claim is to generalise out from one specific, complex case with unique individuals and unique circumstances and make them symbolic representations, even totems for wider socio-political debates. We can (and should) do that with fictional and historical characters. To do so with real, living individuals and current cases strikes me as profoundly dangerous and misguided.

I have watched the debate unfold over recent days with gnawing, even nauseous discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I was able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it when I started to see the inevitable tweets hashtagged #TeamDylan and #TeamWoody – that was when I knew we were not dealing with a meaningful debate but a synthesized, mass-participation role-playing game in which people picked their sides, adopted their character, and went into a make-believe battle, one in which one can do the fighting without the bleeding, safe and secure in the knowledge that one can withdraw at any time and that the whole game will anyway be forgotten in a week or two.

I began to despise the #Team trend during the saga of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. Over the previous couple of years I had seen use of the tag migrate from tweets about reality TV shows like Big Brother to be adopted by fans of pop puppets – whenever a bad headline appeared in a tabloid, fans would rush to declare #TeamJustin or #TeamHarry. So far, so silly. Then one Sunday in June, a paper ran those horrific snaps of a famous, powerful man apparently assaulting his much-loved, more famous wife outside a restaurant. The photos set off a chain of events that included a marriage break-up (with children involved) and a court case with allegations of drug-use. I do not blame people for having sympathies or opinions about the events and the people involved. I do utterly condemn those who adopted the stylings and language of reality TV and pop gossip to engage themselves and make themselves part of the story, when the story is something a mortally serious as sexual or domestic abuse. [See footnote]

To declare oneself on someone’s team is to position oneself not as a supporter or a fan, but as a player, an active participant in an unfolding drama. Could anything be more narcissistic than to locate oneself in the midst of the human tragedy of others? Knowing that Nigella Lawson herself acknowledged and thanked #TeamNigella does not, to me, excuse or improve matters. It just emphasises that she was caught at the heart of an almighty public circus and that her private life was now public property.

What’s worse, I think, is that such language and behaviour actively degrades the suffering of real people. It is hardly an original insight to note that celebrities’ lives are experienced by the rest of us as fictions, the impressions we get of the famous are largely moulded and shaped for better or worse by publicists, by journalists, by editors, by agendas. There has to be a line where this stops being an acceptable source of colour, amusement, humour and harmless titillation in our postmodern lives and becomes exploitative, corrosive and degrading. I would propose that wherever the line is, sexual abuse of children and intimate partner abuse are well across it.

Commercial media has a vested financial interest in dehumanising celebrities’ personalities, caricaturing their complexities and fictionalising their lives into a soap opera or a reality TV show. For a long time, we went along with that. Thanks to social media, we are now the prime culprits.


UPDATED PS – Literally seconds after I’d posted this I saw that @stavvers had written a compelling blog as to why Suzanne Moore is wrong, focussing on another hashtag  - #IBelieveHer or #IBelieveDylan.

Just for clarity, I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with that. As I’ve written many a time before, “I believe her” (or him) should always be our default response to victims’ reports of abuse.  And I think “I believe”  is a perfectly legitimate expression of opinion.

That said, I remain deeply uncomfortable about using celebrities as avatars of profound political truths in circumstances like this – it quickly becomes less of a discussion than a circus.