May 12 2014

How to confuse an American: The politics of the c-word

In my last blog, I noted in passing that I am prone to using very offensive language, including the word ‘cunt.’ I think it was coincidence, but around the same time Ophelia blogged on that very topic, and inadvertently created a perfect case study of the phenomenon I was discussing.

As PZ noted in a follow-up called ‘How to drive a Brit crazy’, anyone objecting to the use of that word is likely to reap a torrent of comments saying “it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England.”

I’ll return to the question of whether ‘everyone says it in England’ in a minute, but first let me observe that what PZ describes is a classic example of the “you shouldn’t be offended by that” fallacy. Irrespective of how the word is used in other cultures, to many people – and especially to most Americans – ‘cunt’ is a deeply offensive, sexist and misogynistic word. In truth I use it very rarely on the internet / social media, because I know there will be people reading who will be upset by it and I have no wish to hurt them. I quite consciously modify my language out of respect for the sensibilities of some people who might read my words. That just seems like the decent thing to do.

Occasionally I will weigh up that risk of offence against whatever point I wish to express by using it, and jump in with both feet. If someone objects, I may or may not apologise or regret my choice of word, but never would I tell someone that s/he is wrong to be offended. That would be outrageously presumptuous. The “But in England…” defence is indeed a pile of cack.

That said, the debate raises (or more accurately, misses) a point about the c-word that I find fascinating. In my experience, whenever foreigners, and especially Americans, fail to grasp a nuance of British habits, it is because they are almost entirely oblivious to the function and history of our class system, which runs like deep scars into every aspect of our society, our politics and – above all – our culture. The c-word is a quite splendid example of this in action.

It is simply not true that everyone in England says “cunt” all the time. It is not commonly considered sexist or misogynistic (note, I’m not saying it isn’t – I’m saying that’s not how it is considered) however it is undoubtedly considered exceptionally vulgar. Vulgarity in British culture is inextricably wrapped up with the performativity of class status.

It is not a huge exaggeration to say the debate over the c-word began at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For the next 400 years or so, English peasants spoke endless regional variations on middle English, (the language of Chaucer, most famously.) The ruling class (nobility) spoke Anglo-French. Over a couple of hundred years, roughly between the times of the Tudors and the Georgians, the English language began to standardise, and people learned to perform a place in the social hierarchy according to whether one’s vocabulary and vocal stylings leaned more to the Norman / Anglo-English or the older, more ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon.

Before spelling was standardised, Chaucer had the freedom to improvise, and makes a rather clever visual pun by spelling the word cunt as ‘queynte’ – deliberately echoing the word ‘quaint’ meaning ‘a pleasing thing’ and he used it liberally and without any hint of embarrassment. By Shakespeare’s time, the bard was reduced to hinting at it like a naughty schoolboy – and he did, often.

However, there was no United Kingdom at the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare. The further you drifted from the Norman influence, the less the people’s language was polluted by the aristocratic gentility and Latin constructions of the Normans. We Scots had 0ur own languages (lowland Scots, a close relative of middle-English and Highland Gaelic – which we share with the Irish) the Welsh had theirs of course, and still do.

So long before the notion of sexism or misogyny had even been conceived, the word ‘cunt’ had become a battleground in a long-running and bitter culture war and those who were most keen on its erasure were the aristocrats, the theocrats, the patriarchs, and those irritating Puritans that we shunted off on the Mayflower and hoped to never hear from again. As Laurie Penny rightly points out here, excising ‘cunt’ from people’s language was in itself an exercise in controlling and shaming women’s bodies and sexuality. The modern British taboo against saying ‘cunt’ in the presence of a “lady” has much more to do with perpetuating the patriarchal Madonna-whore dichotomy than any kind of acknowledgement of sexism.

As late as 1790, the Scots’ national poet (and a personal political hero, incidentally) Robert Burns was not just toying with vulgarity, he was positively revelling in it. Sometimes it was jocular, 18th century vaudeville, like his poem superficially about a hat called ‘Cock up Your Beaver‘ at other times he didn’t even bother with the pretence. Burns, the son of a ploughman, had a strained relationship with the nobility in both Edinburgh and England whom he felt courted his talent while patronising him and mocking his origins. By writing such unapologetic vulgarity, Burns was very deliberately performing the role of the common man, for the common man – and woman.

Jump forward another couple of hundred years, and to one of my all time favourite films, Shaun of the Dead. Near to the beginning, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in the pub, trying to explain to his pretentious, upwardly mobile friends that his best mate Ed is really a good guy. Ed cheerfully strolls up to the table and beams “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”

Where I grew up in Eastern Scotland, the word cunt is used prolifically. I once heard two elderly women in Dundee talk about their grandchildren, including the memorable phrase “och, the pair wee cunt’s got the maist affy colic” (translation: “Oh, the poor little soul has the most terrible stomach pains.”). Such usage serves a social and political function. It states, very forcefully, that the speaker resides proudly among the vulgar, not the refined. It is used in full knowledge that it will cause upset and offence to those of a delicate disposition. It is a statement of political identity, and I have no doubt that largely explains why it is so much more prevalent in the further flung homelands of Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Australia – than it is in England. Even within England, it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and sociopolitically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative. It can also be true that words change, gather or lose layers of meaning over time. Even if it was once used without intrinsic misogyny does not mean it remains free of those semantics today.

So in that sense, I am not seeking to shift the debate as to the acceptability of the word in either direction. However I am convinced that there is a profound difference between British and American usage. In Britain the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental. In the US, the word is mostly used for its performative misogyny and it is the vulgarity, in terms of social class, which goes unnoticed and incidental. 

There have long been – and continue to be – debates amongst British people as to the c-word’s function and acceptability. Even amongst women and within British feminism there is no kind of consensus on either side, and anyone who claims there is must be disingenuous or mistaken. I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.

May 08 2014

From street harassment to Clarkson: The first rule of causing offence

During my recent blogging hiatus, a couple of teacup-bound tempests blew up in which I detected a common theme. It’s a trend that can also be spotted in all sorts of debates around offensive or hateful language and behaviour, in many contexts.

First, the Guardian became embroiled in one of its periodic ding-dongs about everyday sexism and misogynistic street harassment. It began with a video which set out to turn the tables on catcalling and sexual harassment which, in my view at least, failed on every level – in its concept, its delivery and the message it conveyed. It then sparked a couple of follow-up blogs, culminating in a downright weird piece on Comment is Free by a chap called David Foster who seemed to believe that discouraging men from making unwanted and threatening sexual advances to strange women in the street would lead to the human race dying out. Or something.

In an apparently unrelated news, Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines across the UK media after audio footage emerged of him joshing around hilariously with the hideously racist old children’s rhyme Eenie Meenie Minie Mo. In the ensuing farrago, Marina Hyde stuck out her (perhaps brass) neck and declared herself rather bored by the ritualised ding-dong between left and right over the casual, soft racism of Clarkson and his ilk, and suggested that rising to the bait merely entrenched the debate. This in turn provoked Musa Okwonga to pen one of the most brilliant blogs I’ve read this year: a weary, funny, dignified cry which nonetheless packed a punch like a handful of ballbearings in a silk stocking.

I believe in freedom of speech as a powerful guiding (if not quite absolute) political principle. I don’t think people should be censored or punished by the state for what they say or write, unless their words present a very clear and immediate danger to others. Where we create our own spaces (blogs, websites, homes, social networks, whatever) we can write our own rules and expect others to stick to them, but in shared common spaces, people should be free to cause offence.

I don’t agree with imprisoning drunken idiots who spout foul racism on public transport or who send offensive tweets to me or anyone else on the internet. I do not think it should be a criminal offence to proposition someone sexually on the street. The corollary to that – the inescapable quid pro quo – is that we all must take responsibility for our words and the impact they have on others. I think there is a rule of free human interaction which far too many people fail to grasp, and it goes like this:

None of us gets to decide how another person reacts to what we say or do.

The debates on sexual harassment sparked hundreds, if not thousands of comments that basically boiled down to (usually) men telling (mostly) women that they should be flattered if told A,B or C, that they should not be threatened or offended by behaviours X,Y or Z. The debates about Clarkson were spilling over with (usually) white people telling (mostly) black people that they should relax about racist language, it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything, or if Snoop Dogg says it, why shouldn’t I?

Fail. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.

I offend people, on a fairly regular basis, I know I do. I cannot write about the topics I cover without offending people from time to time with my ideas or my language. I swear a lot, including calling people cunts (note to US-based readers, where I grew up we pretty much use that word as a punctuation mark.)

As a citizen of a nominally free society, I assert and proclaim my right to offend you, and I champion and defend your right to offend me. However neither of us has the right to tell the other not to be offended.

It seems to me that if someone says “I was offended by that” there are several perfectly legitimate responses, including:

1. Oh, did it? I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

2. Good. I fully intended to offend you.

3. Oh did it? So fucking what?

The two responses which I find extremely problematic are:

1. No it didn’t

2. You shouldn’t be offended by that.

What is the difference between the first set and the second set? It is all about ownership and control of another person. When I somehow impinge upon another person’s consciousness, I take the chance that he or she may be happy about that or unhappy about it, may react well or react badly.

If I strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop I might generate a pleasant social interaction for us both, or I might totally freak the other person out. Either response is entirely legitimate. If I pass a woman in the street and say “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen” then she might be walking on air all day or she might be posting online to Everyday Sexism within the hour. Either reaction is entirely legitimate. If I use the word ‘nigger’ or ‘Paki’ in public or print, someone might hear me and think I’m cheekily poking one in the eye of political correctness or that I’m a nasty racist. Either assumption is theirs to make.

In all these examples, the other person might misunderstand my intentions, but that was the risk I took. It is crucial to understand that ‘I didn’t intend to offend you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must therefore not be offended’ any more than ‘I didn’t intend to kill you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must not be dead.

When I talk about the concept of privilege, I’m generally referring to a psychological process, a series of cognitions that are conditioned by one’s experience of status in the world. I think we see it really clearly here. There are few greater markers of a privileged attitude than believing one has the right to tell another how to react emotionally, how to think, how to feel.

We all have the right to be offensive. We also have the right to be offended.

May 07 2014

O HAI! Remember me?

I know, I know, I’ve been neglecting you and ignoring you and have done a reasonably impressive vanishing trick for the last month or so.

Just so you know, I’m fine, not ill, haven’t been arrested as a perennial suspicious character, haven’t been killed in a bizarre gardening accident or anything like that.

If you’re really interested, I have been performing a really boring balancing act of assorted work/life issues and this blog has kind of tumbled down through the gaps. Probably also felt a need for a bit of battery-charging time, if I’m honest.

But I’m happy to report I have now reverted to something approaching my usual routine and will hopefully be furnishing you with some topics of intrigue and scandal to get your teeth into very soon.





Mar 24 2014

Girls, boys and gangs: beyond villain and victim

Right wing thinktank the Centre for Social Justice is the latest body to turn a concerned gaze upon the issue of girls’ involvement with gangs. This is one of those stories that seems to surface every few months and is reported every time as a shocking, scandalous new exposé.

In truth there is little or nothing in the CSJ report that wasn’t reported in the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report in November last year, or by Channel 4′s investigation in 2012 or by Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) in 2011 and 2010.

It was Firmin whose work really deserved to be considered groundbreaking, and is still shocking today. She interviewed 350 girls who were directly involved in gang culture or gang-affected communities, who reported endemic sexual exploitation and rape alongside experiences as victims, perpetrators and conspirators in various violent and serious crimes.

Firmin’s work with ROTA was a milestone because, at least as far as the public and media narrative was concerned, it marked the end of a decade of textbook moral panic and folk devils about girls and gangs – gleeful tabloid tales of knife-wielding girl gangs roaming the streets like XX chromosome droogs. As the work of Susan Batchelor has convincingly shown, there is little evidence that girl gangs, in any meaningful sense, have ever existed in the UK. That is not to say that girls are not involved in gangs, but the nature of that involvement remains opaque.

The ROTA reports highlighted how a lack of serious research and investigation into the extent and nature of girls involvement with gangs was hampering provision of necessary support and exit services. Subsequent research has added nothing to this dearth of meaningful data, indeed the new report quotes Patrick Regan of charity XLP saying:

“The biggest issue with girls and gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of what is going on. Everything seems to be indicating that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and the current data fails to reflect the majority of the girls’ involvement.”

Into this vacuum has slipped a new narrative that risks taking on the character of a whole new moral panic. Over the past four years, discussion of girls in gangs has been strictly limited to the position of victim. Part of this is about social and economic victimisation, with reference to childhoods in care, or abusive families or social exclusion, slum housing and poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, the headlines have focussed on sexual exploitation.

There are many horrific accounts in these reports of gang rapes, punishment rapes, revenge rapes and more. The anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough that no one should doubt that youth gang culture is sheltering some appalling sexual violence, even if we really have no idea about the true extent of the problem. Alongside that, however, there is a rather salacious subtext that is exoticised by a glossary of street talk – “links”, “line-ups”, “wifeys” that pays scant interest to issues of consent, agency, motivation and intent. The assumption seems to be that a sexually active young woman from a poor background is, de facto, being exploited.

I spent the best part of a decade doing community media projects in a notoriously gang-affected area of South Manchester. I worked with and alongside young (and sometimes not so young) people who were inside, outside and exited from gangs, including work with convicted young offenders. I saw a lifestyle and culture that is entirely built on exploitation. The street gangs exploit the vulnerability, fear and hopelessness of brutalised and neglected young people just like themselves. Older drug dealers and thieves to manage their businesses by exploiting the aggression, anger and territorial habits of teenagers and their clawing, desperate desire for some kind of status, respect or validation.

Within that, it is all but impossible to untangle who is exploiting and who is exploited, who is the villain and who is the victim. The reality is that almost everyone involved meets either description from one day to the next, or at the same moment. People do horrible things, commit horrible crimes, as a way to avoid becoming victims of horrible crimes. All of this is true for boys just as much as it is for girls.

The perfect illustration of this is contained in the CSJ report. In the section on sexual exploitation, they provide testimony that on occasion, “female gang members in their late teens are being pressured to have sex with young boys in gangs, sometimes as young as 10, as part of the initiation process of those boys into the gang.”

Both in the report itself and the attendant media coverage, this anecdote was presented purely as an example of girls being exploited by gangs. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone that what is being described here is not just the sexual exploitation of a young woman but also a crime of serious child sex abuse against a young boy. In the reporting of this one piece of evidence we see the male victim of a serious, psychologically traumatising crime being entirely erased. Within the narrative the boys are instrumentalised to the point of irrelevance – they only feature as incidental objects. Am I the only one who finds this shocking? And am I the only one who thinks that our willingness to overlook the brutalisation of young boys might be a bloody big part of the problem?

As I see it, we have made significant progress in how we consider girls in gangs. Yes, at times the media can be patronising and romanticise away the agency of young women who willingly choose to exercise disturbing violence, brutality and cruelty, not least to other young women. It is, however, better that we err on the side of compassion and understanding of how they ended up behaving like this.

What I struggle with is our unwillingness to apply the same rational framework, the same degrees of empathy and sympathy to young boys who are similarly victimised, brutalised and vulnerable. A paradigm which holds all gang-involved young women to be innocent victims in need of rescuing and all gang-involved young men to be vicious, sexually exploitative criminals is not only infantile and inaccurate, it is actively obstructive to producing the shifts in policy and culture that could help to keep safer young women and young men alike.

Mar 13 2014

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests’; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:


But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.  

Mar 04 2014

Getting into bed with Christian fundamentalism: Behind the APPG report

In the wake of Mary Honeyball MEP’s efforts to push the whole of Europe towards adopting the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the British media gave generous coverage yesterday to a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Most of the papers obediently parroted the line that after hearing expert testimony from 413 different witnesses and organisations, the MPs were recommending the ‘legalisation‘ of prostitution but the criminalisation of buying sex and tougher policing of pimps. The current law, they reported, is an inconsistent mess which (pretty much) nobody thinks effective.

I have no intention of raking over the Nordic model debate yet again. I will quickly point out that to make the provision of a service legal but the purchase of the same service criminal would strike me as the ultimate example of an inconsistent mess. I would add that from what I have heard and read from sex workers themselves, the single greatest hazard to their safety is probably the legal bar on joint working and shared premises, which arises directly from efforts to combat pimping and brothel-keeping. Every sex worker I’ve heard comment on yesterday’s report seems in agreement that the proposals would put them at greater risk and further marginalisation, and I see no reason to argue.

I would note too that yesterday’s report, as a piece of research, is pretty dreadful. There is no attempt to record, report, quantify or evaluate the full range of evidence and opinion submitted to the inquiry, leaving a strong impression that the committee had simply cherry picked the snippets of testimony which fitted with their pre-ordained positions and ignored everything else. While the report admits to receiving contrary submissions, there is no attempt to explain or justify the route from evidence to recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling detail is barely mentioned in the report itself. The All Party Group which funded it is made possible by the provision of a secretariat and expenses from a charity called CARE – Christian Action Research and Education, which spends more than £400,000 per annum purely on ‘influencing public policy.’ This not only includes supporting the All Party Group on prostitution, it also involves providing (at the last count) a dozen free interns for sympathetic MPs.

So who are CARE? To quote the Telegraph:


Care describes itself as a “mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy”. A closer look at its website appears to contradict the claim to be “mainstream”. The organisation’s published doctrinal basis is distinctly fundamentalist and among other things talks of “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. In other words, the Bible is the literal truth.

CARE are furiously and proudly homophobic, to the extent that one MP (a gay Christian) once described them as ‘a bunch of homophobic bigots.‘ They were heavily involved in lobbying against the introduction of gay marriage and against the repeal of Section 28, while they believe in prayer as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps most disturbing is their position on abortion. They directly fund the network of CareConfidential crisis pregnancy centres in the UK, where counsellors were recently filmed undercover claiming abortions would increase chances of breast cancer and could predispose women to becoming child sexual abusers.

At this point, allow me to step back for some perspective. For those unfamiliar with British parliamentary process and convention, All Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal, official bodies. Unlike (highly influential) select committees, they have no official remit, no official authority, not even a budget (which is why they go cap in hand to ‘charitable’ lobbyists to pay the bills.) All it takes is 20 MPs or peers with a shared interest to decide to form a group. Consequently there are APPGs on everything from greyhound racing and crown green bowls to jazz appreciation. The report published by the APPG on prostitution yesterday carries no authority and does not compel the government to act in keeping with its recommendations.

However, what we have seen is a major new offensive in a long-running propaganda war. Few people reading the newspapers yesterday will have appreciated that the APPG is a self-selecting cabal, dancing pre-planned steps of religious and ideological conviction, to a tune played by bunch of extremist, fundamentalist bigots. They will be unaware that the recommendations of the APPG are, surprisingly enough, all but indistinguishable from the policy positions previously laid out in CARE’s own documents. What readers of the press across the political spectrum, from the Mail to the Independent to the Guardian will believe is that a group of MPs has spent a year collecting and examining expert testimony then concluded that the Nordic model was the best approach to take.

This is a profoundly dishonest and disingenuous contribution to the debate. It is no longer a shock to find leftwing and / or feminist politicians jumping into bed with rightwing religious fundamentalists, accepting their favours and cash for the cause. Dworkin and McKinnon were doing the same with Reagan’s pals on the fundie right back in the early 80s. However it is important for democracy that if these unlikely bedfellows are going to be engaged in such unholy relations, they do so in the full glare of sunlight, not skulking in the shadows.

Feb 21 2014

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.

Feb 14 2014

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.

Feb 13 2014

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.

Feb 03 2014

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.

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