Dear Martin, a word to the wise

A former lads’ mag editor is advising feminism on its branding. A word to the wise may be required.

Psst, hey, Martin! A word in your shell-like over here.

I expect that by now, several hours after your Telegraph blog appeared, your ears will be burning at best if not (metaphorically) battered black and blue. It may be some time before you are ready to engage with constructive criticism, but here’s a friendly note and, to borrow from that classic historical text Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head, I’ll drop it in the basket, you can read it later.

I’m sure you knew there was a shitstorm heading your way and you knew why, but for the benefit of spectators let me spell it out. One of the primary objectives of feminism – perhaps THE primary objective of feminism – is to liberate women from men’s authority and control – not only formalised and structural authority but also the assumption of male authority and female subservience which comes from a few millennia of oppressive socialisation. Against that backdrop, even well meaning advice from a man on how to fix feminism and make it more effective is rarely well received. When the man is a northern hemisphere, middle aged, middle class, straight white man like you or me… well we can imagine. When that man is also formerly editor of the lads’ mag Loaded and you invite comparisons between that failed rag and the feminist movement… well actually no, I can’t even begin to imagine.

Now let me move on to this:

Feminism isn’t meant to be sexy, but as a word, it is instant intellectual brewer’s droop.

I really, really wish I didn’t feel like this. But as long as feminism is called feminism, a small, dark nugget of my soul will forever resist its message.

I hate to break it to you Martin, but a primary message of feminism is that the world does not (or should not) revolve around the sensitive fee-fees of middle aged, middle class, straight white men and our boners. Demanding – or even politely requesting – that feminism rebrand itself to become more palatable to men like you and me is deep, deep into the territory of waging war for peace or fucking for virginity. If you want feminism to become more palatable to swallow or an easier cloak to don, the only course of action is not to change feminism, but to change yourself.

Now, I must confess, your work over the past couple of years has been something of a revelation. While we don’t always agree, I’ve genuinely admired a lot of your articles and was really impressed with the documentary you made about the affects of widespread pornography on young men. Do you really need the comfort blanket of the feminist movement (whatever it might be called) to make the points you make? Would your work be any more convincing, any more effective? I don’t see it.

As I see it, men in the 21st century have an unprecedented opportunity. Over the past 100 years or so, feminist scholars and activists have lifted the lid on gender identities, shown how they are constructed and policed, demonstrated their role in propping up all manner of restrictive and oppressive power structures. This is a gift to the likes of you and me and anyone who cares about not just about women and girls, but also about boys and men. The toolbox that feminism developed is now open to everyone. We can use it to examine and challenge such issues as society’s suspicion of men as parents and carers and symbolic language which locates courage and strength in male genitalia.

Martin, you offer one of the few voices in the British media that is prepared to speak up for men and boys without getting lost down the rabbit-holes of anti-feminism and misogyny. It doesn’t matter whether you or I feel included by the ‘branding’ of feminism. It does matter that we are prepared to fight injustice and oppression, discrimination and hatred as and when it appears, irrespective who it is aimed at.

See you on the barricades, brother.

Ally

x

When is it acceptable to ask ‘But what about teh menz?’

It would be safe to say my post on Emma Watson and HeForShe generated some pretty strong reactions.

We’re no strangers to strong disagreements here at HetPat, and I assume that most of what I write will lead to angry reactions from one quarter or other. And while I’m never shy of arguing my position in the comments boxes, I do honestly pay attention to thoughtful criticism and I give especially careful consideration to disagreement from people whose opinions and views I usually share and value. That was the case this week.

Probably the most common criticism of the post was that it amounted to an extended #whatabouttehmenz screed and I wanted to give that point some serious attention.

I acknowledge, accept and agree that feminists should have as much space as they want and need to discuss the needs and lives of women, identify problems and formulate solutions or plans of action. Some problems are gender-specific and require gender-specific analysis. Where women are discussing their own lives and situations it is inappropriate for men to march into the space and attempt to divert the conversation onto their issues instead. The same applies, obviously, when men are discussing their own issues. [Read more…]

The five little words that betrayed Emma Watson

There is so much to admire in Emma Watson’s sublime speech to the UN on Saturday. There was the poise and elegance with which it was delivered, the subtle charisma and assured performance, but it was the content that has made her the talk of social media and the darling of the world’s young progressive left.

The roster of Hollywood actors and naff pop stars that makes up the (remarkably lengthy) list of UN Goodwill Ambassadors are usually considered something of a joke. Once you have learned that Ronan Keating once put his name to a parliamentary inquiry into global food security, satire and snark can be declared redundant. And yet Watson’s speech was different. There was an inescapable sense that not only had she written her speech herself, every word came from deep within her.

In particular she made a compelling argument that, in the words of bell hooks, feminism is for everyone, or as the theoretical dictum would have it, patriarchy hurts men too. The points have been made often before but seldom with such simple sincerity:

I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from illness, unable to ask for help for fear it will make them less of a man …. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are.”

So while I didn’t entirely agree with every word she said, there was more than enough there to win my support. Without a moment’s hesitation, I went to the HeForShe website to add my name to the campaign. I got as far as the button to sign the pledge when I glanced over the wording, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t sign. The pledge is only 35 words long. For 30 of them I was agreeing enthusiastically and then…. well, let me talk you through it. [Read more…]

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.

A history of ad hominem gender shaming

I blogged recently about my disdain for those who respond to any man writing favourably about women with the swipe “you’re only saying this in the hope of getting laid.”

Several respondents pointed out, quite correctly, that this is just one strand to a wide family of ad hominem attacks, all of which focus on the putative conscious or unconscious psychological motivations behind an expressed opinion.

It pops up in all political arenas (the phrase ‘the politics of envy’ is a classic example) but it seems especially prevalent in gender debates. Examples include dismissing feminists as being fat, ugly, sex-starved, bitter and jealous of more attractive women, or the precise mirror image – dismissing men’s activists as being sad, socially inadequate, resentful virgins who live in their mother’s basements.

It’s the kind of lazy thinking we all slip into occasionally – and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of blots on my own copybook, before you rush to point it out. Nonetheless it is an intellectually bankrupt, politically corrosive and degrading, and very often entirely untruthful approach to debating issues, whoever is responsible.

One might expect such cheap and nasty rhetorical tricks in the mucky trenches of the online gender wars. It is rather more surprising to find a prime example in an acclaimed, scholarly, academic history book.

My current light reading is a recent book by Ben Griffin entitled: The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. Yeah, I know, I’m a barrel of laughs at parties. Anyway, in many respects it is a fascinating work, exploring a really interesting idea that since each gender is largely defined in opposition and contrast to the other, the gradual emancipation of women and reinvention of femininity through the 19th Century was both a cause and consequence of a parallel and contemporaneous reconstruction of male gender roles. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Victorian conceptions of fatherhood and paternity. It is useful to be reminded just how fluid and transient such seemingly immutable attitudes prove to be.

But here’s the ‘but.’ One particular point of interest for Griffin, which appears sporadically through the book but also gets a whole chapter to itself, is an urge to psychologically profile the most vehement anti-suffrage members of the Victorian parliaments. These guys were, I am quite happy to concede, unbearably reactionary, misogynistic dinosaurs with an unedifying attachment to brute, traditional masculinity, the type of politician who, were they around today, I would doubtless be writing articles and blogs about – mocking and condemning their appalling opinions. I hope I would not fall into the trap which, with 150 years’ of distance, catches Griffin.

It is not enough to the author that these men were wrong, misguided by anachronistic ideology or religious beliefs. He feels the need to pathologise them like the history department’s answer to Fitz from Cracker. These men, Griffin alleges, doth (or didth) protest too much. Hence Sir Henry James was “a lifelong bachelor” with “an unusually close attachment to his mother.” He “exhibited a visible interest in cases of unusually close attachment between men.” He was, according to one rumour, the secret lover of Lord Randolph Churchill, but according to another, responsible for a full household of illegitimate children.

Meanwhile Charles Newdegate MP represented “a similar case of exaggerated filial piety…. indeed the relationship seems to have been exceptional in its intensity.” What’s more, “there is no surviving evidence of him having ever expressed any interest in women at all.”

On a slightly different tack, another ardent advocate of patriarchal supremacy was very much married. Alexander Beresford Hope MP opposed every reform of women’s civil and legal rights, but he had secrets of his own. At home, we are told, his most striking characteristic was his “absolute devotion to [his wife] and complete surrender of his will to hers, never opposing or thwarting any of her wishes but always thinking of and anticipating her views and desires.” You might think this makes him sound rather lovely (the original source was the MP’s daughter, after his death), but that is not how the author sees it. Instead it stands as evidence that Beresford Hope’s anti-feminism was a reaction to being a henpecked husband.

Summing up, the author argues:

“any interpretation of their speeches has to take into account the fact that the speeches were not simply statements of anti-suffragist belief; they were also efforts to create masculine identities. By entering the battle to oppose women’s suffrage these bachelor mummies’ boys presented themselves as hard-headed men of business or as chivalrous knights set on protecting the fairer sex. These were identities that served to compensate for the fact that these men fell far short of the masculine ideal, and as such we should not underestimate the attraction that entering the debate on women’s suffrage held for these tarnished defenders of the patriarchal order.”

My objections to all this are twofold. The first is based in social science and psychology. As the likes of Adorno and Eysenck pointed out more than 50 years ago, all political views are, to an extent, underpinned by personal cognitive processes and/or personality. All of our politics are to an extent shaped and influenced by our personal histories and our private lives. It is striking that this type of forensic diagnosis of political positions is only ever applied to people we disagree with, never to ourselves or those on our own side. Were there not MPs who supported suffrage who were submissive to their wives or quietly homosexual? Almost certainly, but Griffin doesn’t explain away their progressive views on that basis, although either would be an easy case to make. Once we start to go down that route, all debate and discussion quickly becomes reductive and ad hom.

The second problem I have with all this is, I think, a more serious matter. Griffin clearly considers himself to be a progressive type, his allegiances are overtly pro-feminist and his references are peppered with post-structural gender theory from R.W. Connell et al. For all that, I can’t help but find his analysis subtly but profoundly reactionary. The glee he seems to take in nudge-nudge innuendo that anti-suffrage MPs were secretly gay strikes me as more than a tad homophobic, and so too is the repeated conflation of ‘confirmed bachelor’ with ‘mummy’s boy.’ The passage about the henpecked MP seems to be shaming the man for being insufficiently dominant in his own home.

I realise I’m probably being harsh, but I can’t help reading Griffin as saying that if you don’t agree with his enlightened modern views on gender, there must be something wrong with you, and in the case of these MPs, what was wrong with them was that they were secretly gay, lacking in masculine, heterosexual independence, or excessively subordinate to women. Um, hello? Isn’t this just old heteronormative, patriarchal gender policing wrapped up with a new progressive ribbon?

Whether or not Griffin is guilty as charged, there is an unfortunate tendency, particularly among male feminists, to create new, feminist-friendly hierarchies of masculinity which (conveniently) place them at the top. However well intentioned, slogans like “real men don’t hit women” still reinforce the false notion that there is such a thing as a real man, an ideal man, against whom all others should be compared. I don’t think it is helpful.

The sad truth is that some real men do hit women (or other men), some don’t. Some real men are gay, some real men are homophobic. Some real men lean left politically and some to the right, some real men oppose women’s rights and others support them. That was true in the 1870s, it remains true today, and if we want to challenge the views of those we oppose, we need to take on their arguments, not their personal lives.  

Men, memes and misogyny

Last week the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland made one of his periodic forays into gender politics, sparked by the Liberal Democrats’ saga of sleaze, the latest Twitterstorms and a tacky plastic surgery game app.

I fully endorse the main message of the piece, that men should actively involve themselves in challenging and combatting misogyny and gender oppression. Beneath that I had several disagreements. I despise the ‘man-up’ cliche on which he concludes, especially when applied to the type of chivalrous protector role suggested here. This type of benevolent sexism seems to me very much part of the problem, not the solution. His suggestion that the forthcoming Southbank conference Being A Man should focus on what men can do to help women merely amplifies that.

At the heart of the piece is a section on the part played by women in propagating misogyny.

Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That’s adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It’s a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.

The notion of a ‘war against femaleness’ seems confused to me. Is he talking about the social construction of traditional female gender? If so, I’d say the opposite is happening – if there is a war here it is actually being waged on deviations from subordinate, compliant, superficial femininity. Or does he mean there is a war against women? That’s a familiar claim and one which I believe (just like the same claim about men) founders on its own hyperbole, to the extent that it becomes neither instructive nor functional.

What I really find intriguing in this section though is the way in which Jonathan seems to imply that misogyny is “imbibed” and expressed in ways that are fundamentally different for men and women. He’s not alone in this, a lot of feminist and pro-feminist writing makes the same assumption, that misogyny is something that is fundamentally owned by men, created by men, somehow essential to men, and when women join in it is as tourists, cheerleaders or bandwagon jumpers, rather than central co-instigators and participants.

I’m not convinced this is true. it makes more sense to me to think of men’s misogyny in the same way that Jonathan here describes women’s misogyny – that men have imbibed so much misogyny it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

While people of different genders are, of course, differently socialised, they are not raised on Mars and Venus. We all swim in the same ideological waters, breathe the same culture, absorb the same messages. Boys (in western liberal societies) are not raised with specific instructions to hate or fear women, rather both boys and girls are raised with almost identical messages about socially acceptable gender roles, about socially acceptable (and gender-specific) sexual behaviour, how nice girls behave, what it is to be a real man. Consequently boys too often grow into men that despise women who fail to meet exacting beauty standards, but so too do women. Women who depart from the script of demure, modest and restrained sexuality will be reviled as sluts or slags by women and men alike.

In that sense, misogyny is not something men do to women with an occasional female collaborators. It is an ambient dynamic in society, a collection of attitudes, beliefs and values that are passed down through generations and shared, gradually evolving to survive and thrive in new environments, whether changing workplaces and cultural loci or the new reality online. In other words, misogyny can be understood as a rather classic example of meme theory.

I appreciate that at this point some readers will be spluttering that I’m trying to get men off the hook for the oppression of women. With respect, I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that challenging misogyny and all forms of gender or other oppression will need to be a shared project.

I also consider this a rather more optimistic way of considering the issue. Analyses which describe misogyny as being somehow inherent or even essential to men or masculinity strike me as being ultimately disempowering. I refuse to accept that gendered hatred and oppression (of any flavour) is inevitable or invariable. If we consider misogynistic attitudes and values to be broadly memetic, then we accept that we can change our society in such a way that they will either wither and die or evolve beyond all recognition. I consider that a rather comforting thought.

Where’s the power? Some thoughts on Emer O’Toole’s feminist flowchart

I turned my back on the Guardian’s Comment is Free page for about five minutes on Thursday afternoon, and when I turned back around there was a piece by Emer O’Toole on men and feminism that had already reaped around 1300 comments.

I clicked, expecting some provocative outrage above the line and a savage feeding-frenzy below. It wasn’t really the case. The comments, by the standard of CIF feminism, included an unusually high proportion of interesting and astute points and constructive exchanges. The article itself centred on a flowchart designed to test whether or not a man (although I see no reason why it should be restricted to men) can be classified as a feminist or not.

Copyright  Emer O'Toole / The Guardian

Copyright Emer O’Toole / The Guardian

Although she’s too polite to say so, the post is really a demolition of the facile yet almost ubiquitous trope that goes “Do you believe men and women should be equal? Congratulations, you’re a feminist.” A lot of the controversy and dispute in the comments spiralled around a couple of points that I have made myself in the past and broadly agree with. The first is that feminism is (and should be) a woman’s movement, led by women, for women and with women’s rights, welfare and issues at its heart. Feminism is not a broader movement for social justice and equality of all sorts (including issues which primarily affects men). That’s not to say feminism cannot or should not sit alongside other social justice movements (including those which do focus on men) – simply that it is not feminism’s job.

The second point of agreement is that whether or not someone should be described as a feminist is not necessarily that big a deal.

You don’t have to be a feminist. There are plenty of ways to be awesome without working towards equal rights for women. For example, if you answered “Who do you think is more disadvantaged by gender inequality?” with “Women, but I’m still more interested in talking about men,” that’s fine.

Leaving aside the use of the phrase “be awesome” (cringe), and the fact that Emer goes on to pick out the Good Men Project as an example of said awesomeness (GMP and I have history) – I think this is pretty much spot on. There is no obligation to be feminist, and not being so doesn’t necessarily make you personally or politically bad.

It would be an interesting experiment to stop 100 random women in the street and take them through the flowchart. My guess is it would go a long way to answering the question which so often vexes mainstream liberal feminism, as to why a large majority of women choose not to identify as feminists.

That said, I do have a few issues with the analysis here. The first is the point of identification. This kind of reified, mechanistic approach removes any real personal choice from the question of whether or not someone is a feminist. It becomes a matter of pathological diagnosis instead (like “congratulations! You have syphilis!”) To me this misses one of the most important elements to the equation. I know several people who have made a conscious and conscientious decision to opt out of the label ‘feminism’ out of frustration, disgust or despair at the way the feminist mainstream deals with issues of concern to them – for example, white privilege and racism; sex worker rights or male victims of domestic and sexual abuse. It seems egregious to assume the authority to impose the label on people who may not wish to accept it, and arrogant to assume that everyone would want to be so defined.

My other theoretical issue with the post is that it positions feminism purely around matters of equality. As one persistent commenter rightly pointed out repeatedly below the line, the assumptions underpinning the question would be rejected out of hand by bell hooks, for starters, who would surely react by asking “equal with which men?”

Emer insists that to quibble over definitions of equality is enough to send you straight to the ‘Not a feminist’ box. Really? Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking of the kind of religious traditionalist who says things like “I believe Our Lord made men and women equal, which is why he decided that men should have the important job of going outside and earning money while women should have the equally important job of staying home, raising her family and keeping herself and her home all clean and purdey.” Is that a feminist belief?

As most feminists identified decades ago, the central issue is not about simple equality, but about personal, political and economic power and their distribution at the micro and macro levels. That is precisely why feminism began talking less about equal rights for women, and more about patriarchy. They are not the same issues.

I suppose we could start the flowchart with the question “Do you wish to challenge social, cultural and political structures which curtail and prescribe gender roles which systematically entrench disproportionate power relations between men and women within the context of a hegemonic capitalist system that is sustained by interlinked networks of oppression?” but I accept you would struggle to squeeze it into a little box on a flowchart.

Louise Mensch and the grotesque spectacle of white privilege

I have been trying to keep quiet on the ongoing schisms within feminism, and in particular the flare-ups between mainstream or ‘white’ feminism and those broadly grouped under the intersectional banner on social media. I’ve actually written and abandoned a couple of posts, realising they were going to help nobody and risked further hurting some who are already hurting.

Tonight a line was crossed and I can bite my tongue no longer.

On New Year’s Eve, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Caroline Criado-Perez appeared on BBC Women’s Hour as part of a review of the year. Along the way there was an exchange about intersectionality, transcribed here. Reni blogged her account of the experience. Caroline offered an apology. I declined to comment.

In the messy aftermath of the programme, Professor Liz Kelly, whom we might call a doyenne of British radical feminism, tweeted the most ill-advised hashtag I’ve ever seen in support of CCP – #reclaimintersectionalityin2014. I declined to comment.

Tonight, just as I sensed the passions and fury beginning to wane on both sides, Louise Mensch decided to march in with her hobnailed Christian Louboutin stilettos. In an astonishing series of tweets, the former Tory MP firstly accused Reni of bullying:

Reni was wrong and Caroline was wrong to give into her bullying. I wouldn’t have. #feminism

She then went on to describe Reni’s arguments as “rubbish” and “disgraceful” and accused her of trying to ‘silence’ other women.
I make it a personal policy these days to try not to march into debates between feminists, as it generally doesn’t help either side and it certainly doesn’t win me any friends. But this is not about feminism. This is about an embarrassingly privileged white person with wealth, fame, influence and platform on her side, stomping all over a young black person for having the temerity to offer ideas above her station.

The first point to make is that of all the people I know on the broad media left, Reni Eddo-Lodge is about the least prone to bullying and silencing others you could imagine. It is simply not her style. She does not smear others or troll opponents, she does not pick personal fights or call on people to check their privilege. Her blogs and tweets, though politically radical, are measured, studious and impeccably temperate. For what it is worth (and it is not especially relevant) they each contain more wisdom, insight and intelligence than Mensch could summon in a lifetime. I can only conclude that Mensch believes that simply by calling attention to racial dynamics within feminism, Reni is bullying and silencing… who? Well, racists, I guess. The alternative explanation is less flattering but perhaps more credible – that Mensch cannot be bothered distinguishing between one ‘intersectional’ woman and the next, and she was mixing up Reni Eddo-Lodge with some other woman. Do they all look the same to Louise?

We should bear in mind that Mensch has form on this. A few months ago, there was a polite exchange between Laurie Penny and Ava Vidal on Twitter. Laurie had advised ignoring a racist troll, Ava suggested that it wasn’t a white person’s place to decide how we should respond to racism. Laurie agreed, apologised and retracted. All would have been fine until Mensch decided this was some craven submission and wrote an article attacking intersectional feminism that was so ill-informed, ill-advised and ignorant it made your cortex bleed.

Many people are unsure how white privilege looks and is played out in modern society. This is it. This insistence that the racial dynamics structuring our society are the natural order of things and must be beyond challenge. This belief that any black person who does challenge existing systems is a disgraceful bully – however polite, educated and articulate she may be – and must be stamped on at the first opportunity. This is a grotesque spectacle of white privilege raised to an artform.

This week I’ve seen others within feminism ask why intersectional feminists and women of colour must be so mean, so intemperate, so rude. When we see how some in the white establishment treats those who are impeccably polite and mannered, I’m astonished they remain so restrained.

College rape and the importance of measuring success

To my eyes, one of feminism’s more frustrating traits is a widespread refusal to acknowledge social progress or its own successes. It’s rather odd when you think about it. It is at least 40 years since feminists began to turn serious attention to topics of sexual and domestic violence, with the publication of works like Sexual Politics and Against Our Will. It is 38 years since the world’s first Take Back the Night rally and 39 since the first national US coalition of rape crisis centers was formed. On university and college campuses, feminists and their allies have been lobbying (often successfully) for a wide variety of sexual assault prevention strategies since the 1980s. If you take your information from feminism’s own campaign literature, all these efforts have been completely and utterly worthless. All those women involved, all the millions of hours of campaigning, all the books, posters, and leaflets have made not the slightest jot of difference.

How do I know? Well, back in the early eighties when I first started seriously conversing with feminists, reading their books and leaflets and trying to learn about the world, I was horrified to learn that approximately one in four women would be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. I would see variations on it, such as one in four students being victims, or occasionally it would rise or fall to one in five or one in three, but the claim remained fairly constant.

Jump forward three decades, and feminist campaigners continue to use the precise same statistics. For example, here’s The Feminist Wire just a few weeks ago: “One in four college women will experience rape or attempted rape.” Here is a student feminist saying “one in five college women are rape victims.”

As anyone with even a passing awareness of criminological trends should know, something remarkable has happened to violent crime statistics over the past 30 to 40 years. It has happened to an extent in all of the developed world, but especially in the USA. It applies to all violent crime, but especially to sexual assault and rape.

NCVS-trends-336x328

When the National Crime Victimization Survey was created in 1973, it found that 250 women out of every 100,000 had been raped that year. Over the next eight years, the statistics worsened. According to NCVS, around one in every 300 American women over the age of 12 was subject to rape or attempted rape in the single year 1980. By 2010 that had fallen to one in 3,000, a decrease of 90%. At this point I should note that there are statistical problems with victimisation surveys. Their survey populations tend to miss people with more chaotic, less settled lifestyles, who are more likely to be victims of crime. The NCVS in particular is a household survey and (while efforts are made to address this) has real problems picking up domestic and interpersonal violence and abuse. However crucially, these problems have always been there. They were there in 1973, and 1980 and are still there today. So while victim surveys are not a reliable guide to actual extents of crime, they are a very reliable guide to trends. If NCVS says rapes have declined by 90%, there is little reason to doubt that this is broadly true. A variety of alternative research methods have produced similar results, and similar trends can be observed in most other developed democracies. And yet anti-rape activists continue to use statistics drawn from a profoundly different era.

It should also be acknowledged that there are other ways of estimating rape prevalence. Research by Fisher et al, conducted in 1996-7, found an incidence of 2.8% for rape and attempted rape in a period of less than seven months. If one were to scale that up to a 60 month stretch as a college student, admittedly a very crude method, one would indeed reach an incidence of around 20%. (Although we should also note that NCVS figures show a 60% decline in rapes just since 1996)

This week US News magazine ran a deliberately provocative and spiteful attack on campus feminist groups. The author Caroline Kitchens picks up on the “one in five” type statistics I’ve been discussing here and uses it to dismiss the idea that there is a problem with rape and sexual assault on campuses, and to dispute the claim that there is such a thing as “rape culture.”

I have big problems with Kitchens’ article. She dismisses anti-rape activism on the basis of Department of Justice figures, saying that: “Across the nation’s four million female college students, that comes to about one victim [of rape and sexual assault] in forty students.”

I’d agree that compared to rates of one in four, five or six (which are actually quite credible estimates of the situation as it was in the early 80s), one student in 40 being raped or sexually assaulted, if true, would be a magnificent improvement. However it is still one student in 40, which is one student in 40 too many. If one student in 40 was being murdered, would we accept that? I don’t think so, and I’m not prepared to condemn those who strive to reduce that figure to one in 400, one in 4,000 or ideally a big fat zero.

Kitchens also seems to entirely misunderstand and misrepresent what is meant by “rape culture.” I should stress that it is not a term I find especially constructive and I don’t choose to use it myself (not least because it is so easily misunderstood) but if someone is going to criticise a theoretical construct, they should criticise what it actually is, not a straw version. In brief, rape culture does not necessarily assert a “distorted view of masculinity” and nor does it require the actual incidence of rape to be omnipresent or even especially high, instead it refers to a kind of ambient cultural mood which enables rape and which considers any level of rape in society to be tolerable.

Kitchens should have been on stronger grounds with the question of how universities and colleges deal with internal allegations and complaints against students. It certainly appears that an individual such as Caleb Warner, whose case is detailed in the article, has been treated entirely unjustly and I would quite agree that there is legitimate cause for concern as to what safeguards are in place to protect the wrongly accused. However it is a huge leap from there to claiming that sexual assault prevention policies have certainly made [campuses] treacherous places for falsely accused men” or that “across the country, students accused of sexual assault are regularly tried before inadequate and unjust campus judiciaries.

I’m prepared to be corrected, but the only research I have been able to find on the practice of sexual assault inquiries on US Campuses is this one, by the Center for Public Integrity, conducted in 2010. In a survey of 130 colleges, it found that around half of all hearings found against the accused. That would suggest to me that the committees are at least being cautious in reaching their judgements. More significantly, only 10% of cases where the complaint was upheld led to the accused student being expelled.

Kitchens, in railing against exaggerated and misleading portrayals of the prevalence of sexual assault, would appear to me to be slipping into the equally dangerous territory of making an exaggerated and misleading portrayal of the extent and consequences of false rape allegations. She concludes her article by saying “advocates for due process, rules of evidence, basic justice and true gender equality need to speak louder than the “f*ckrapeculture” alarmists.”

I really do not disagree with that conclusion. I would only add that those same advocates also need to speak louder than false accusations alarmists, who are no less numerous and in some ways considerably more dangerous.

As I said at the top of this page, feminists can be frustratingly reluctant to acknowledge good news. In an attempt to rebut Kitchens’s article, Jezebel ran a piece by Erin Gloria Ryan which simply added a whole new layer of awful. In her haste to debunk the claim that the incidence of campus rape is now vastly lower than the oft-quoted one in five, Taylor glanced at the title of the study quoted by Kitchens  – The Violent Victimization of College Women – and leapt here:

So, from a survey of “violent” victimization, Kitchens extrapolated that the “one-in-five college women will be raped” statistic is false. Check out these statistics that say statistics are crap, guys.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. My eyeballs hurt.

First, Kitchens demonstrates with this column that she doesn’t know what rape is. Like Todd Akin and Whoopi Goldberg, the crime she describes is the eye rollingly cliched image of a woman walking down the street and being violently dragged into an alley by some guy with a dastardly mustache. But that’s not an accurate picture of rape. According to RAINN, more than 2/3 of rapes are perpetrated by an offender known to the victim. Most take place within a mile of the victim’s home. And in many cases of collegiate rape, the victim isn’t overpowered by physical force or violence, but by alcohol. And, legally speaking, having sex with a person who is too intoxicated to consent constitutes “rape.” Hell, of all the women I know who were raped in college, I can’t think of one who has described it to me as “violent.”

In fact, as a couple of mouse clicks would have revealed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of that name does not define rape in any such way. It actually lays out in painful detail the true nature of rape, including circumstances, relationships to the offender and all the rest of it, and says:

“This category includes forced sexual intercourse including psychological coercion as well as physical force… It includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims and both heterosexual and homosexual  rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape… Sexual assault is also included in this category which includes a wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. Sexual assault also includes verbal threats

Ryan’s reluctance to acknowledge that there may have been some element of truth to Kitchens’s charges, and her kneejerk grab for a reason to hang on to the one in five myth have led her to make an incredibly harmful assertion – that most rapes are not violent. This is astonishingly short-sighted. As has often been said, rape is a violent crime in which the weapon is sex. It is, on its own terms and without any additional aggression or physical harm, an act of the most extreme violence. For a supposedly feminist commentator to slip into this language and logic of rape apologism is sad to see.

It is also, I suspect, what happens when you tie yourself in knots trying to deny inconvenient facts.

Over the past 40 years, society has made huge progress in recognising human rights of sexual autonomy, educating men and women about sexual consent, and challenging and reducing rape culture. It is not a case of mission accomplished, by any means, but it seems to me that the strongest arguments that feminists and anti-rape campaigners have to hand is that people can change, society can change, and we know that, because people and society have already changed massively. All those who have responded to campaigns on sexual violence by shrugging and saying “hey, what can you do, you can’t change human nature” have been proven quite spectacularly wrong.

If we can get this far, there is no reason why we can’t go further.

White Slave Traffic: A Friday 13th guest post by Emma Goldman

Intro: A few years ago, the former sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill had the idea of making Friday 13th an auspicious date for sex workers and their anti-prohibition allies. She wrote:

“Friday the 13th should be good luck for whores even if it really were bad luck for Christian men.  Now, I’m not really superstitious; I don’t believe that a day can bring either good luck or bad.  But considering that the reasons for fear of this day are so closely related to the reasons our profession is maligned and suppressed, perhaps whores and those who support our rights should make every Friday the Thirteenth a day to speak out in favor of full decriminalization and an end to the institutionalized persecution of prostitutes.”

It’s a compelling invitation, and when I was looking for inspiration as to what I might write, I went back to one or two of my favourite sources. As I was browsing Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays, I quickly realised that much of what needs saying had been said over a hundred years ago, and is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. I couldn’t hope to do any better.

Goldman lived her life alongside sex workers and devoted much of her time to working for their welfare, rights and sexual health, along with sexual freedom for all women and men, including gay men, lesbians and ‘Uranians’ – those we would now call trans, intersex or gender non-conforming. Goldman was continually persecuted and even imprisoned for these efforts, as she was for her anti-capitalist and anti-war anarchism.

As a quick note on Goldman’s beliefs, it is important to note that when she describes prostitution as an “evil” she meant a political evil – an evil of commercial exploitation, not an evil of personal morality. She used the exact same language about factory work and all other forms of purchased labour under capitalism, which she calls “economic prostitution.” She also saw prostitution as an inevitable product of sexual repression, monogamy, religious restriction and the institution of marriage, which she abhorred.

When this essay was first published in Goldman’s own journal Mother Earth, it was seized as obscene material after a complaint from the notorious Christian moralist Anthony Comstock. You can read the full original here, but for now, here are some selected extracts from one of the most powerful arguments for decriminalization ever written.

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The White Slave Traffic by Emma Goldman (First published January 1910)

Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery — the white slave traffic. The papers are full of these “unheard-of conditions,” and lawmakers are already planning a new set of laws to check the horror.

It is significant that whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc. And what is the result of such crusades? Gambling is increasing, saloons are doing a lively business through back entrances, prostitution is at its height, and the system of pimps and cadets is but aggravated.

How is it that an institution, known almost to every child, should have been discovered so suddenly? How is it that this evil, known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue?

To assume that the recent investigation of the white slave traffic (and, by the way, a very superficial investigation) has discovered anything new, is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution.

*

What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”

Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.

*

Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution.

*

The most amusing side of the question now before the public is the indignation of our “good, respectable people,” especially the various Christian gentlemen, who are always to be found in the front ranks of every crusade. Is it that they are absolutely ignorant of the history of religion, and especially of the Christian religion? Or is it that they hope to blind the present generation to the part played in the past by the Church in relation to prostitution? Whatever their reason, they should be the last to cry out against the unfortunate victims of today, since it is known to every intelligent student that prostitution is of religious origin, maintained and fostered for many centuries, not as a shame, but as a virtue, hailed as such by the Gods themselves.

*

Until 1894 very little was known in America of the procurer. Then we were attacked by an epidemic of virtue. Vice was to be abolished, the country purified at all cost. The social cancer was therefore driven out of sight, but deeper into the body. Keepers of brothels, as well as their unfortunate victims, were turned over to the tender mercies of the police. The inevitable consequence of exorbitant bribes, and the penitentiary, followed.

While comparatively protected in the brothels, where they represented a certain monetary value, the girls now found themselves on the street, absolutely at the mercy of the graft-greedy police. Desperate, needing protection and longing for affection, these girls naturally proved an easy prey for cadets, themselves the result of the spirit of our commercial age. Thus the cadet system was the direct outgrowth of police persecution, graft, and attempted suppression of prostitution. It were sheer folly to confound this modern phase of the social evil with the causes of the latter.

Mere suppression and barbaric enactments can serve but to embitter, and further degrade, the unfortunate victims of ignorance and stupidity. The latter has reached its highest expression in the proposed law to make humane treatment of prostitutes a crime, punishing any one sheltering a prostitute with five years’ imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Such an attitude merely exposes the terrible lack of understanding of the true causes of prostitution, as a social factor, as well as manifesting the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.

There is not a single modern writer on the subject who does not refer to the utter futility of legislative methods in coping with the issue. Thus Dr. Blaschko finds that governmental suppression and moral crusades accomplish nothing save driving the evil into secret channels, multiplying its dangers to society. Havelock Ellis, the most thorough and humane student of prostitution, proves by a wealth of data that the more stringent the methods of persecution the worse the condition becomes. Among other data we learn that in France, “in 1560, Charles IX. abolished brothels through an edict, but the numbers of prostitutes were only increased, while many new brothels appeared in unsuspected shapes, and were more dangerous. In spite of all such legislation, or because of it, there has been no country in which prostitution has played a more conspicuous part.”

An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and ensure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones — coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.