Atheism, Social Justice, and Dictionaries

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nOver the years, the atheist movement has split asunder over the issue of whether social justice activism has a place within the atheist movement. Recently, a post on The Daily Banter caused a stir of conversation about it the likes of which I haven’t seen since Atheism+ started happening. (Though this one was markedly less impressive.)

The piece, written by Michael Luciano and entitled “Atheists Don’t Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing,” basically argues that social justice is something you do with your liberal hat on and not your atheist hat. He points out that all the word “atheist” means is that you don’t believe in gods and not necessarily that you support “liberal politics.”

It seems apparent to me, first of all, that atheism is a social justice issue. Heina points out in their post “Top Five Arguments the Atheist Agenda Doesn’t Have the Right to Use” that many things the atheist movement tries to fight for are social issues. A lot of atheist activism focuses on equal representation in and by the government and normalizing atheism, the goals of which are to eliminate the ways atheists are harmed as a minority. Seems pretty social justicey to moi. [Read more…]

I hate the his/her side of the bed meme

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nYou heard me. It’s obnoxious. (Not just because of the inherent cissexism/heterosexism.)

If you’re not familiar with what I’m referring to, it’s a relatively common joke that (in a cishet relationship) women take up most of the bed while the dudes are relegated to a small sliver at the edge.

I couldn’t find exactly the one that ignited this train of thought for me, since it was someone else’s random Facebook post from months ago, but here are a couple examples of what I mean:

what [Read more…]

White House Response to Non-Binary Gender Petition

10464169_10201853698937124_3923966816234564280_nDon’t get too excited, folks. The response was about as disappointing as you might expect.

Thank you for your petition requesting that the executive branch legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary and provide an option for these genders on all legal documents and records.

We know how important this issue is, and we understand the profound impact, both symbolic and otherwise, of having official documents that accurately reflect an individual’s identity. These documents play an essential, functional role, but also demonstrate the measure of dignity and respect afforded to our nation’s citizens. We cannot overstate the care and seriousness that should be brought to bear on the issue.

We recognize the importance of gender identification in particular and the Obama Administration is working to modernize federal policies in this area. For example, in 2010, the U.S. Department of State made it easier for individuals to update the gender marker in their passports. And last year, the Social Security Administration followed suit by simplifying the process for individuals to change the gender marker on their social security cards to reflect their identity accurately.

As you can imagine, there is considerable variance across agencies and levels of government. And so while the Obama Administration wants to make sure that official documents reflect the identities of the Americans who hold them, we believe proposals to change when and how gender is listed on official documents should be considered on a case-by-case basis by the affected federal and state agencies. However, that consideration must be informed by best practices and a commitment to honoring individuality and ensuring fairness.

Thank you again for your petition. We appreciate your input and the opportunity to convey our shared commitment.

It really just strikes me that the person who wrote this response (Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity in the Domestic Policy Council) doesn’t have an understanding of non-binary sex, much less gender. Like how babies are born with “ambiguous” genitalia and there’s no legal option for designating their sex as something other than strictly male or female. (Not to mention the many inherent problems with designating sex at birth anyway.)

The original petition wasn’t worded super well anyway.

Legal documents in the United States only recognize “male” and “female” as genders, leaving anyone who does not identify as one of these two genders with no option. Australia and New Zealand both allow an X in place of an M or an F on passports for this purpose and the UK recognizes ‘Mx’ (pronounced as Mix or sometimes Mux) as a gender-neutral title.

This petition asks the Obama Administration to legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary (such as agender, pangender, genderfluid, and others) and provide an option for these genders on all legal documents and records.

So yeah, an expected disappointing response. I’m glad there’s a way for us to engage our government more directly and show our numbers, but I had hoped for more.

I’ll be at Women in Secularism 3. Will you?

Women in Secularism 3 is coming up fast, running from May 16-18 in Alexandria, VA. Among the speakers are Ophelia Benson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Melody Hensley, Susan Jacoby, and many other spectacular secularists you won’t want to miss. Also, I’ll be appearing on the following panels on Friday, May 16:

  • 1:15 pm – 2:45 pm
    Online Activism
    Moderator: Lindsay Beyerstein, Panel: Soraya Chemaly, Amy Davis Roth, Zinnia Jones, Miri Mogilevsky
  • 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
    Intersectionality and Humanism
    Moderator: Soraya Chemaly, Panel: Miri Mogilevsky, Heina Dadabhoy, Zinnia Jones, Debbie Goddard

This is going to be really awesome and you should totally be there. Register early for discounted rates!

I don’t want to be “one of the good ones”

A long-awaited companion piece for Heina.

If you’ve ever favorably contrasted me against other trans people or atheists or queer folks or anyone else like me, just because I’ve been quiet when they’ve been outspoken in the face of wrongdoing, or I was overly patient and indulgent of ignorance when they’ve been rightfully terse: fuck you.

Stop it. I don’t want your support or approval. I am not on your side. I am not one of you. I want to be like them – not like you. I don’t want to be one of your “good ones”.

I’ll define this type of situation by way of example. A few months back, I was mentioned on Anton A. Hill’s blog in a list of several people with whom he’d recently had productive conversations on issues like feminism and trans stuff. In my case, this was because I happened to be in a friendly mood when he asked me a question that involved the phrase “born w/ a peepee”.

This was just one instance of a pattern that was repeated throughout the post: his surprise that his criticism of Freethought Blogs as a whole was handled calmly by NonStampCollector, or that a member of Secular Woman “respected” his “right to disagree with her” on issues of feminism (as if how people regard a man’s opinion of feminism is in any way connected to individual rights and freedoms), or that Marisa Gallego “maintained politeness” when he “downright called her on her shit” in their discussion of trans matters.

I’ll ask you to take a moment and think about which of these people you expect I’d be more inclined to align myself with – him, or the people who graciously “maintained politeness” when addressing his “born w/ a peepee”-level views on these issues.

Reading this post made me rather suspicious of what he was aiming to convey. As I found out by the end, it was nothing good: he capped it all off with vague criticism of fellow FTBer Ophelia Benson, and how his experiences with her had led him to suspect that all our conversations would descend into a “vicious, name-calling flame war”. We were the good ones… so who were the bad ones? In his estimation, she was.

I don’t agree with this at all. I don’t want to be used as a plank of someone’s argument in their ongoing grudge against FTB or Ophelia or Jen or Greta or Stephanie or Rebecca or Amy or any of the other women in the community who’ve continually stood up against harassment and threats. I don’t want to be an example cited by someone who thinks silence, or meek civility, is a norm we should all aspire to when faced with this. No – I would want such a person to know that I am not on their side here. I am not going to agree with them. I am not going to be complicit in being set apart from admirable and resilient people who have faced down this kind of abuse.

Does anyone really, honestly expect that my views come anywhere near “yeah, screw Ophelia for not suffering fools gladly! I’m with ya, buddy!”?


This happened again after I was recently on TV to discuss the Chelsea Manning case, trans people in the US military, and access to transition care for trans inmates. Another blogger, Nelson Garcia, said I was “doing a stellar job explaining why it’s important for that person formerly known as Bradley to receive hormone therapy while she serves out her time.”

Much-appreciated praise – were it not surrounded by use of the word “tranny” (which he believes is a measured response to use of “the cis word”). Also, the claim that trans women “are just men who’ve deluded themselves and others into believing they’re women”. And the use of “he” in reference to a well-known trans woman activist. And – yes, he actually did this – nitpicking about the particular kind of surgeries she’s had, and calling this a “con” to have her identity documents updated. Oh, and then he called her a “media whore”.

I mean, holy shit.

Do you think I ever, at any point, would want a person like this to tell me I’m “doing a stellar job”? Does their judgment seem to be of such quality that I should even want to be on their good side?

Nothing I’ve ever done makes me any better than the other trans women he’s insulted and personally attacked in ways that are egregious and invasive even by the usual transphobe standards. And nothing I’ve done makes me better than, say, women on Twitter who just plain don’t feel like educating people from scratch on things like trans stuff and sexism. That’s their prerogative and it’s perfectly valid – it doesn’t make them any worse than me. Not everyone is always, or ever, inclined to get into it with people who are potentially hostile to the very foundations of their equality as human beings. We’re not all equipped to confront that every day, or any day. We shouldn’t have to be, and we shouldn’t be seen as any worse for not wanting to do so.

When what I say is used to fuel some expectation that we should all be unfailingly kind and patient in the face of nonsense, I don’t feel good about that. It’s not something I want my words to be used for at all, and such approval is not something I seek. When they try to separate us into “good ones” and “bad ones” based on how agreeable they find us, it’s often my friends who are considered the “bad ones”. And I know who I’d rather be with.

Righteous ecofeminist takedown

Guest post by Heather McNamara

In my Women’s literature class, all of the books we read had ecofeminist themes. Obviously I got an A. I know. I can’t help it.

Even though the class is over, it got me thinking about ecofeminism. I read a few articles about it and the widest criticism I can find is that the narrative is typically centered around white women. In case there are a few 101s in the audience, I’ll briefly explain why this is a problem. While obviously white women have legitimate feminist agendas,when white women dominate the narratives, the concerns of people of color are at best ignored and at worst willfully invalidated. More on this in a minute. So, when I went to the library to get a book about ecofeminism, I intentionally overlooked the eight volumes that appeared to center mostly on white women’s concerns and went straight for the one book that had chapters about colonialism and women of color. Simply titled “Ecofeminism,” I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Chapter two, “Ecofeminism through an Anticolonial Framework” on account of the name of the author, Andy Smith. Generally speaking, when I want to read about anticolonialism, I don’t want to read it from the perspective of somebody who shares a name with some of the most notorious English colonizers. I prefer to hear from those who have personal experience. Andrea Lee Smith is a Cherokee feminist scholar and not a white man as her name suggests. Silly me. She has written a whole lot of awesome books that I now have to read. That being said, I soon found Andy actually had quite a lot of interesting stuff to teach, and I wanted to share them with you. Below are some selected quotes:

The Inuit of Canada reported that NATO war exercises had been wreaking environmental havoc where they live. The 8,000 low-level flights that had already taken place over Inuit land had created so much noise from sonic booms that it had disrupted the wildlife and impaired the hearing of the Inuit. Furthermore, oil falling from the jets had poisoned the water supply.

The Shoshone reported that low-level flying also takes place over their land. One man was killed when his horse threw him because it was frightened by the noise of the jets. They reported that the flying had been scheduled to take place over the cattle range until the Humane Society interceded, saying this would be inhumane treatment of the cattle. Consequently, the war exercises were redirected to take place over Indian people instead.

Wow, way to go Humane Society.

In the interest of being brief and not just quoting an entire chapter on my blog, I’ll just let you know that what we learn next is that waste dumping on Native land, since it’s not “American land” does not need to meet the same EPA requirements. Because of this, it’s cheaper and therefore preferable for some unscrupulous companies to dump their waste on native land and cause miscarriage, cancer, and birth defects.

Now, here’s where we learn about exactly how racist white-centered feminism is:

The inability to fully embrace an anticolonialist ideology is the major stumbling block in developing alliances between Native people and members of the mainstream environmental movement and the feminist movement.

For instance, in “Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism,” Michael Zimmerman argues in favor of eradicating the dualism between humans and nature. “only by recognizing that humanity is no more, but also no less, important than all other things on earth can we learn to dwell on the planet within limits that would allow other species to flourish” However, deep ecologists and other environmental theorists are often not consistent in applying this theory in practice. For instance, sentiments that have been expressed in Earth First! Journal include that “the AIDS virus may be Gaia’s tailor-made answer to human overpopulation” and that famine should take its course in Africa to stem overpopulation. Such sentiments reinforce, rather than negate the duality between humans and nature, because they imply that humans are not part of nature and that their destruction would not also mean environmental destruction… In addition, it is noteworthy that the people that are targeted as expendable (victims of AIDS and Africans in the foregoing example) are people of color or Third World people who have the least institutional power or access to resources in society… To even make such a comment indicates that one has to be in a fairly privileged position in society where one is not faced with death on a regular basis. It also assumes that all people are equally responsible for massive environmental destruction, rather than facing the fact that it is people in positions of institutional power who are killing the earth and the people who are more marginalized to further their economic interests. It is racist and imperialist to look at the people who are dying now from environmental degradation (generally people of color and poor people) and say that it is a good thing that the earth is cleansing itself.

All emphasis mine. So in other words, all that crap that you hear about overpopulation killing the planet and all this disease being a perfect cure for it? Sorry to burst your bubble, but allowing the deaths of millions of poor and marginalized or those in developing countries is not going to bring the earth back to balance. It’s not Gaia undoing the damage. It IS the damage. Removing poor and indigenous people is the least efficient way to save the earth.

It’s a slightly pricey book but your local library may have it. Just follow the link I’m not doing MLA citations outside of school.

Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at

Looking Gosnell in the Eye

In early 2011, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was arrested on charges of murder related to his abortion services: one charge for the death of a woman who had sought an abortion at his Philadelphia clinic, and seven additional charges for the killings of infants that had been born alive. The grand jury report on Gosnell’s clinic contained a variety of emotional appeals that were largely irrelevant to the actual charges, and at the time, the sensationalized report received wide coverage and was frequently used to attack abortion generally. My partner Heather analyzed the report and its subsequent coverage, and found many arguments by the grand jury and the media to be lacking. Many magazines and publications refused to print her analysis, and now that the trial of Gosnell has begun and these same arguments have flared up once more, we’ve chosen to republish her piece here. -Zinnia



Looking Gosnell in the Eye
by Heather McNamara

In the wake of the release of the grisly grand jury report and the media firestorm surrounding the atrocities at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, we, as pro-choice feminists, have been posed a difficult question. Basted in gruesome quotes, the emotional appeals from the pro-lifers (and more reserved pro-choicers) who read the report are everywhere and seem to ask, “Did you know it was this gruesome?” The responses from pro-choice advocates have been reserved – usually articles featuring calming, tranquil images of very pregnant women in silhouette standing by windows, presumably contemplating all the trials and joys ahead of her, and certainly not crying on the bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test. “Think of the women!”, we say, “think of the babies”, they say, and nobody seems to be answering the question: well, did you know it was that gruesome?

The difference between flashing the grand jury report and flashing large poster images of aborted fetuses in front of clinics is subtle but effective. Gosnell broke the law. He kept an unsanitary facility; he performed abortions that were so late term that they should have been done, assuming they were legal, in hospitals where better monitoring was available; he did not properly care for his patients; and he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs. These things are absolutely wrong, and no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives. Each and every woman who sought the help of Dr. Gosnell deserved a safe, clean, well-staffed clinic. It’s difficult to argue that the abortions Gosnell performed were not wrong, because there were clearly so many things he did that were wrong.

However, there is no connection between the lives Gosnell endangered and the ethicality of abortion, and some of the things in the grand jury report that disgust us – jokes about the fetuses being “so big they could walk me to the bus stop”, for example – are things that could happen in clean, professionally staffed clinics. There is no law against bad taste. So why were they even mentioned in the grand jury report? Among the shocking and frankly manipulative language contained within, we find outright misleading quotes such as “these women were giving birth” to refer to the induced contractions to dilate cervices, “he played with the baby” to refer to his touching the fetus’s hands, and “he stuck the scissors into the back of their necks” to refer to a method of terminating a fetus that has long been widely recognized as entirely valid and comparatively humane. The proper vernacular is “intact dilation and extraction”. Quotes like these, considered rationally, should not compel us to question abortion, but instead should make us question the state of mind and competency of the grand jury. In legal contexts, emotional appeals are out of place.

The reality is: medical procedures can be violent, visceral events. Every day in hospitals everywhere, people are bruised, broken, and cut open. Ribcages are cracked open, skin sliced open, veins burned and yanked out, sensitive areas cut, and burns scraped. These things are done to help and save people. The inner workings, procedures, ethics, and yes, tasteless jokes in any clinic could be detailed in such a way as to turn you off the idea of healthcare forever, but that does not make anyone’s need for it any less valid.

Dr. Gosnell ended the lives of some fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits. He cut into the backs of their necks and severed their spinal cords. Legitimate abortion providers also do this. They dilate women’s cervices, which can be painful, they terminate fetuses, and they cut flesh. And so what? Does the weakness or strength of your constitution, or anyone else’s, comprise a valid basis for granting or removing a woman’s control over her most precious domain – her body?

These arguments exist for one purpose: to desensitize us to the plight of the presumably healthy, if scared and distraught pregnant women we imagine, and turn our attention instead to the horror we can observe. They’ve caught us at a vulnerable time when several states are introducing bills to limit and outright deny access to abortion. Now is not the time to be squeamish. Now is the time when we, as feminists, can show we’re not afraid to confront the difficult and unpleasant realities of abortion – the disturbing bloody images, the fact that sometimes women don’t actually have a Very Good Reason to be seeking one, and even the unfortunate physical and emotional consequences that sometimes follow. Once we acknowledge that these things are there and real and unpleasant, we can continue to assert our right to do it anyway, and in doing this, remove their power over us.


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at

The crass hypocrisy of Julie Burchill

Guest post by Heather McNamara

So, who’s heard of Julie Burchill and her “censored” article?

Coming to the defense of her maligned feminist friend, columnist and author Julie Burchill wrote an article about trans women. Apparently, her friend Suzanne Moore’s latest article contained a faux pas. In Burchill’s words:

She wrote that, amongst other things, women were angry about “not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”.

At best, this is simply a poorly constructed byproduct of the aged-out argument that idealized beauties are expected to be voluptuous in ways white women can’t achieve (Brazilian!) and skinny in a way that cis women can’t achieve (transsexual!) simultaneously. It juxtaposes the hyperfeminized (big boobs!) and masculinized (skinny hips!) to demonstrate the absurdity and impossibility of beauty ideals.

It’s aged out because modern feminists can generally agree that however rare these body types are, shaming the women who possess them as plastic and/or masculinized is just repackaging the same old worms. Moore’s statement was poorly thought out. It was also a microaggression. It was clearly not intended to upset or dismiss transsexual people, but to make a cheap and thoughtless argument. The problem was that she completely disregarded trans people in doing so. She decided that their opinions or their audience was not worth acknowledging and that their identities were therefore free and available to use as a brazen and absurd example of what not to be.

Not surprisingly, some trans people didn’t like this. Moore was apparently harassed quite a bit on Twitter and felt forced to delete her account. Julie Burchill to the “rescue!” I won’t bother going into the specifics of the article, because it’s all ugly. There’s some stuff about bed-wetting and bad wigs and a hilariously sophomoric display of Burchill’s feeble grasp of How Words Work. For example:

having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff

Why but Burchill rhymes with Churchill, so if I call her Burchill, am I calling her a wrinkly old white guy who hates Lady Astor? What an idiot.

It was originally published in The Observer, but the editor didn’t take long to realize their mistake and took it down. Of course, any editor worth their salt wouldn’t have published it to begin with, but don’t tell that to Toby Young! Why he was so offended at this “censorship” that he chose to republish this snot on The Telegraph, proving that British and American conservatives have at least one thing in common: they really have no grasp of the concept of censorship at all.

But why did Burchill do this? To defend Moore’s honor? I once found myself in Moore’s position, and I can sympathize… almost.

Not too long after my marriage went downhill and my ex lost his main source of income in the flailing economy, I was forced to take a job – literally any job I could get. My skills and experience were pretty okay, but at every job I applied for, I was competing against literally hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in my area. It was taking forever and I had children to feed. I was about to get evicted. So, I took a job I wouldn’t otherwise take at a call center that hired anyone that came through the door: felons, addicts, anyone.

Every day after work, I would apply for more jobs, but for a while I was stuck there. Well, as anyone who has seen any of my videos on Zinnia’s channel or any of our live shows on BlogTV knows, I present in a fairly masculine manner. I stand well above average for a woman at 5’10”. I’m also very obviously a lesbian, and it didn’t take long for my coworkers to notice, but I am not trans. I do identify as a woman. As one of the few people at the office who didn’t show up to work on a lot of drugs every day, I was also fairly successful.

I worked my way up a rank fairly quickly and soon found myself on a level that very few women in that office ever achieved. My coworkers and bosses were all men. This privilege of being promoted, I was often told, had something to do with my “being one of the guys.” Never mind my performance, I guess. There were frequent jokes about how “manly” I was. They called me by my last name rather than my first. I think this was all meant as showing respect by defeminizing me. As a feminist, this was extremely offensive, but driven to feed my kids and not really in a position to hire a lawyer, I kept my mouth shut.

One day, we came to work and discussed the dress code. They were tightening it up, they said, and men would be required to wear collars and slacks. Somebody asked about women’s blouses. Could women wear shirts that didn’t have collars? Of course, they conceded. Women’s blouses are appropriate. I asked if I could wear shirts without collars. They said no. Somebody made a joke that I would look like a man in women’s clothing. I grimaced quietly.

So, along comes Halloween and there’s a costume contest at work. I thought it might be a good idea to up the ante, so to speak, on their crap. I put on one of my old dresses from back when I used to try to look femme. I did not shave my legs and had not in over a year at that point, so I let my fur fly. I also stuffed some tissue in my bra and put on some makeup to look like a five o’clock shadow and some chest hair. I wore a pink feather boa. I was a bad drag queen. My trans girlfriend thought this was hysterical. So did I.

I did not make much money. We rarely had enough to survive. In the absence of the resources to hire a lawyer and draw any real kind of line, I’d asserted my femininity and shone a spotlight on the absurdity and inappropriateness of my coworkers’ jokes. I felt liberated and empowered for the first time in a very, very long time. I carved a pumpkin with a feminism symbol on it and took a picture sans the boa, which was itchy by then. I posted it on reddit.

At first, the thread went fairly well. People thought it was funny. Then, somebody pointed out that this was transphobic. There was much anger. A trans woman who goes by the internet handle LifeInNeon wrote an essay about how offensive I was. This essay become quite popular. My inbox was filled with death threats and sundry vitriol. I was humiliated and exhausted. I responded defensively. Because this was an empowering statement of my gender during a time when I had very little to feel good about, I would not apologize.

The joke, as I attempted to explain to people, was that I looked like a man in a dress. But the way they saw it, I was mocking trans women as looking like men in dresses, simply by looking like a man in a dress. Individually, Zinnia and I managed to explain this to those who would be willing to listen. When I calmed down a bit, I apologized not for doing what I did, but for irresponsibly posting it without the very necessary context, thereby setting into motion the inevitable consequence of appearing to be another one of those transphobes, of which there are more than plenty.

Those who were willing to listen, LifeInNeon included, agreed that while I certainly could not have expected to be perceived as anything other than a transphobe, this was not bigotry and mostly a horrible mistake. I hold myself and no one else responsible for whatever offense I caused, and I hold the authors of the death threats and no one else responsible for their violent behavior. That’s the end of that.

Due to my experience, I have a unique understanding of what Suzanne Moore must have endured when her words went roaring through the trans activist circles online. People can be really awful. Over a year later, I still sometimes get replies to old reddit comments about how I’m a transphobe. People still post that picture whenever they disagree with me, their version of the ultimate ad hominem.

But however vitriolic and sometimes violent those who responded to me may have been, I would never resort to transphobia. I would never denigrate an entire group of people who are just trying to go about the business of living their lives and achieving the same amount of respect that even Moore and Burchill implicitly receive with crass, base insults about the genitalia of an entire group of people, most of whom probably have no idea who Moore even is.

Did Moore have to apologize to every single person who ever got offended or sent a rape or otherwise violent threat? No. Frankly, I’m not a fan of demanding remorse. Apologies taken are not the same as apologies given. But when you’re calling yourself a voice for equality and social justice, there are some basic rules that people will generally expect you to follow, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that, while you may mess up, and may not always practice what you preach, you at least have some kind of idea of what you’re preaching.

I wouldn’t say that I necessarily handled my personal debacle with the utmost of grace and dignity, but I can say with certainty that Burchill’s handling of Moore’s debacle was beyond the pale. Burchill claims she did this in the spirit of feminism, aggressively claiming women’s voices in a sea of men, in which she includes trans women. But what she’s demonstrated is that her version of feminism has less to do with equality of the sexes, and more to do with making sure sewage just rolls a little further downhill than herself. Armed with the same body-shaming, shallow insult tactics that have been used against women since the beginning of time, Burchill is nothing more than a common hypocrite, and would do well to remember that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

The view from nowhere on female genital mutilation

Following the Lisa Wade/Hastings Center/FGM controversy, Heina of Skepchick made note of a certain prevalent attitude toward female genital mutilation:

Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.

Many average people who oppose practices such as FGM probably do hold the very simplistic and ignorant view that those who engage in such acts are innately and completely evil, and doing it purely for the sake of being bad because that’s just how they are. This is obviously a neglect to consider certain universal aspects of the human condition. People who think this way don’t attribute their own ethical failures or wrongdoing to an inherent “evil” nature on their part – but the others, the ones who do things like mutilate the genitals of their children, are different from them. They must be “monsters”, because what person like themselves could do such a thing? The undercurrents of prejudice in this mindset are clear and unavoidable, and this does nothing to help them understand why a disturbing practice like FGM happens.

At the same time, the reaction of “who would do that to children?” may not always be wholly rooted in the assumption that the people who do this to children are incomprehensible, inhuman monsters who are totally unrelatable. Rather than concluding that these people are simply not like us, the discomfort and bafflement may arise from the realization that they are like us, they are people too – that in another life, we could have been them.

While it’s unnerving to think – mistakenly – that the world contains people who are little more than evil automatons that do awful things like FGM, it may be even more unnerving to accept the reality that these are average people who have somehow reached a point where they consider FGM to be morally good and the right thing to do for their children. The horror at the sheer moral difference between us and their beliefs and practices is only amplified when considered in the context of the sameness of our and their human nature. People don’t have to be fundamentally dissimilar, or inhuman, to do this. They just have to believe it’s right, and they just have to want to do the right thing. No different from us.

Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are. What’s beyond the naive view that FGM practitioners are purely monstrous is even more outrageous, saddening and tragic: not only does something as brutal as FGM occur, but it occurs because good and honest people who care about their children have come to believe that it is right.

It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to dehumanize people, or hold them any less than fully accountable for their actions. But it’s also crucial that this recognition of the universal human capability for baffling, horrifying choices in the name of “good” is not used as an excuse to treat all beliefs and practices as though they were the same. The understanding of “you might do the same thing if you were in their position, because they believe it’s good” has at times been construed to mean that we have no possible grounds to criticize anyone for what they do, as all behaviors are somehow created equal – and whether a thing is right or wrong hinges on nothing but how its practitioners feel about it. It’s wrong to us, but it’s right to them, so who are we to judge?

This is somewhat like the “view from nowhere” in journalism, where certain issues are misleadingly presented as though every point of view is equal in its validity, even though some of them may not be valid at all. What is right? What is wrong? It’s not our place to say. There are only things that happen, from which we must detach any personal judgment.

The report on FGM by the Hastings Center, issued for the alleged purpose of correcting media coverage of the practice, promoted this perspective. They make clear their intentions to exclude any viewpoint on whether FGM is right or wrong – they just wanted to present some facts. That’s all.

The problem is that their presentation of certain facts served to minimize the impact of FGM in just about every way possible: suggesting that journalists should be less “hyperbolic” about infibulation as it occurs among “only” 10% of girls who undergo FGM, implying that sexual functioning is not affected by means of blatantly equivocating statements about how women who haven’t undergone FGM also sometimes report dysfunction, claiming that complications from the practice are “sensationalized” and “infrequent”, lazily dismissing the possibility that FGM results from patriarchal society or male beauty standards by merely noting that women are involved in the practice and largely approve of it, and offering red herrings about how these societies also circumcise boys.

In their pursuit of neutrality toward viewpoints on FGM, disconnected from any judgment of the practice, they ended up inadvertently promoting the view that FGM isn’t all that bad. It does not matter whether they did this on purpose or not. That was the end result regardless of their intentions: they produced a report that downplays the effects of FGM. That’s the problem with the view from nowhere. The appearance of neutrality can disguise the fact that something is not neutral and not accurate in how it depicts a certain issue.

The hands-off stance toward judging the practices of people who believe differently from us functions similarly. When people assert that it’s not our place to decide whether FGM is right or wrong, this actually means allowing FGM to proceed unhindered. Those who hold this view may deceive themselves into thinking they’re being neutral, but the result is not neutral at all. And just because we might indeed endorse the practices of another group if we believed what they believe, that doesn’t mean they can’t actually be wrong for doing it, and it doesn’t mean we can’t actually be right to disapprove of it.

I’m glad that many people strongly disapprove of FGM and want to see it ended. I’m not so glad when some of these people promote what seems to be an impotent version of this belief that’s stripped of any force to create meaningful change. Heina says:

How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.

…In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.

To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM.

Frankly, how anyone hopes to bring about change with this approach is beyond me. If it’s pointless and unproductive to say that FGM is simply wrong, if infibulation ought not be that much of a concern due to its relative rarity (suggesting that other types of FGM may be even less of a concern), if its effects on women are minimal if not completely absent, then why should we want to end FGM, anyway?

Why even be concerned with how unhelpful certain approaches are, if FGM just isn’t that big of a deal? How should we bring about change when we’re deprived of any compelling reason to oppose FGM? Heina notes:

To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.

Recognizing that lasting and effective change follows from genuine changes in the beliefs of the group in question, rather than restrictions suddenly imposed from outside, is definitely important. But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable? What can we tell them to make them realize that FGM is unacceptable? What reason would they have to change their minds, their culture, when we’ve decided that saying it’s wrong is too aggressive and that the harms it causes aren’t all that significant or important?

Again, while it’s wonderful that many people want FGM to be ended, it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own. I don’t doubt that they would like to see FGM abolished. I do question the specifics of how exactly they believe this can happen. What does it mean to believe that we should oppose FGM, while also insisting that this belief should in no way impact its practitioners? The truly razor-thin line here is the one that people must walk in order to believe that FGM should be done away with, while avoiding any use of the words “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong”.

Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

At Sociological Images, Lisa Wade has decided to promote a report by the Hastings Center on the practice of female genital mutilation. In response to what they consider “hyperbolic and one-sided” coverage by “Western media” without regard to the “cultural complexities” of mutilation, the report claims to offer “a better account of the facts”.

By uncritically parroting the report’s findings, Wade repeats its central mistake. For the sake of “balance”, she and the report both leave a gaping chasm where you might expect to see the most pressing, urgent, relevant aspect of the entire issue: the outrage that children are made to undergo medically unnecessary, disfiguring and disabling surgery upon their healthy, normal genitals without their consent.

However much they’ve tried to dance around what should be the central concern here, and excise any suggestion of moral judgment of FGM (they reserve that for “hyperbolic” journalists), its absence screams throughout the piece. You just can’t avoid noticing how this bioethics think tank seemingly displays no interest in considering the ethics of the very practice under discussion.

And while their intention may have simply been to dispel misconceptions about FGM rather than offer yet another condemnation of the practice, their overall characterization of this issue treats it as something that can be sterilized, prettified, and abstracted away. They repeatedly downplay the reality of mutilation – they prefer to call it “surgeries” or “modification”, stripping away any hint of negativity – with an attitude suggesting that those who oppose it should find something better to do with their time. It is a masterwork of callousness, sure to appeal to anyone who regards women as less than human.

This is underscored by the shortcomings of the “facts” they purport to offer. Their claims are almost wholly irrelevant to the inescapable problems presented by FGM, and provide only a cursory analysis of complex phenomena like cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies before dismissing the very possibility that this could have any bearing on the practice. As a whole, it comes off as pathetically reaching for any remotely plausible reason to oppose the “one-sided” condemnation of FGM, in the name of mere contrarianism.

For instance, the report criticizes a New York Times columnist for describing the mutilation as “the sewing or pinning together of both sides of the vulva, by catgut or thorns, and the obliteration of the vaginal entrance except for a tiny passage”. They contend that this “is not factually correct”. The report goes on to explain how three subtypes of mutilation are performed.

Type I is “restricted to procedures involving reduction of either the clitoral hood (the prepuce) or the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue, or both.” Type II “involves partial or complete labial reductions and partial or complete reductions of the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue.” In type III, infibulation, “the operation is concluded by shielding and narrowing the vaginal opening with stitches or other techniques of sealing, which forms a smooth surface of joined tissue that is opened at the time of first sexual intercourse.”

The authors then point out that “infibulations amount to approximately 10 percent of cases across the continent” and are sometimes performed using sutures under hygienic conditions in hospitals or clinics. Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off. Surely the Times was out of line for implying that there’s anything wrong with this practice.

So just how many women do undergo FGM, anyway? Could it be that it’s just very limited, and blown out of proportion by “one-sided” reporters? According to the report:

In some countries, the prevalence among women aged fifteen to forty-nine is very high (over 80 percent). These include estimates from Djibouti (93 percent), Egypt (91 percent), Eritrea (89 percent), Guinea (96 percent), Mali (85 percent), Sierra Leone (91 percent), Somalia (98 percent), and northern Sudan (89 percent).

Oh. So it turns out that 10% of about 90% of adult women in these nations have had their vaginas painfully sealed shut. This is not a small number. I don’t see why anyone would be reassured by the fact that 10% of these women have been forced to undergo infibulation. When millions of girls are still subjected to FGM, it doesn’t cease to be a problem merely because one writer’s description of a certain method’s prevalence was off by perhaps a factor of 10 and most of these girls “only” have their labia or clitoral tissue sliced off.

But hey, maybe FGM isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a harmless little “modification”. And yes, that’s where they’re taking this:

Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced. This is true of the 10 percent (type III) as well as the 90 percent (types I and II).

Most obviously, how does one tell the difference? Just as in male circumcision, girls are subjected to FGM long before they become sexually active. So how would they know what they’re missing? Of course they don’t notice any difference in their sexual satisfaction – they have no basis for comparison. This doesn’t mean that these practices have no impact whatsoever on their sexual functioning.

The report continues:

It should also be emphasized that cases of sexual dysfunction and pain during sex have been reported both by women who have undergone female genital surgery and by those who have not.

Notice how this sentence is carefully crafted to give the impression that women experience sexual dysfunction and pain at similar rates regardless of whether they’ve undergone genital mutilation, while actually telling us absolutely nothing. All it says is this: Some women who have undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain. Some women who haven’t undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain.

Well, so what? This provides no information whatsoever about the rates at which these two groups experience sexual dysfunction and pain, or the nature of the dysfunction and pain, or its cause, or its intensity. The report completely glosses over these relevant facts, instead preferring an ambiguous, equivocating, intellectually dishonest statement of “well, sometimes women have pain during sex even when they haven’t had FGM”. This tells us nothing about the effects of FGM.

Regardless, they continue in their attempts to minimize these effects:

The widely publicized and sensationalized reproductive health and medical complications associated with female genital surgeries in Africa are infrequent events and represent the exception rather than the rule.

What’s especially ironic is that the article Lisa Wade cited in her blog post says just the opposite:

It shows that few studies are appropriately designed to measure health effects, that circumcision is associated with significantly higher risks of a few well-defined complications, but that for other possible complications the evidence does not show significant differences.

Regardless of how exceptional the risk of complications may be, why should it be acceptable to expose a healthy child to these risks at all for no medical reason? Just because something is “the exception rather than the rule” doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable risk.

Yet even if there were never any complications, and even if this never caused any sexual dysfunction or pain, removing parts of a child’s body without reason and without consent simply isn’t justifiable. It also doesn’t really harm a child’s ability to function if you arbitrarily decide to give them a permanent tattoo, or remove one of their testicles (they’ve got two!), or lop off a toe or fingertip. But for some reason, people who do this to their children for no medical reason are arrested. Why? Because a lack of harm – or minimal harm, or low risk of harm – doesn’t equate to an unlimited license to alter a child’s body frivolously.

The report then goes on to explore the motivations behind this mutilation:

Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.” From the perspective of those who value these surgeries, they are associated with a positive aesthetic ideal aimed at making the genitals more attractive—“smooth and clean.”

Surprise, surprise. It seems the Hastings Center has discovered that People Tend To Think The Choices They Make Are Good. Of course the people who do this think they have a good and right reason for it. It would be ridiculous to think they just go around intentionally being evil and doing this to girls for no other reason than “hey, I’m evil and I’m going to slice up this girl’s genitals!” No one envisions themselves as the villain in the story of their life. This is to be expected.

But it doesn’t mean that their reasons or their aesthetic value judgments are valid. Just because someone has a justification doesn’t mean this justification is sound. While these explanations can help us understand what drives this practice, it’s not an excuse. Even if a culture regards a certain body modification as a visual improvement, it doesn’t justify violating a child’s bodily autonomy. If aesthetic sensibilities are so important here, where is the respect for that child’s own judgment? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to make these decisions for their own body as an adult, instead of having it forced upon them at a young age?

And why is anyone this concerned with the aesthetic appeal of a child’s genitals, anyway?

The red herrings keep on coming:

Customary genital surgeries are not restricted to females. In almost all societies where there are customary female genital surgeries, there are also customary male genital surgeries, at similar ages and for parallel reasons. In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary. As a broad generalization, it seems fair to say that societies for whom genital surgeries are normal and routine are not singling out females as targets of punishment, sexual deprivation, or humiliation.

This is an enormous and unexplained logical leap. While some societies may perform both male circumcision and female genital mutilation, this fact alone is not sufficient to conclude that the motivations behind each of these practices must be identical, or that a desire to control women and their sexuality could not possibly be a factor in FGM.

Indeed, just a paragraph later, the report explicitly acknowledges this:

In some societies where genital surgeries are customary for females and males (for example, in Northeast Africa), chastity and virginity are highly valued, and type III surgeries involving infibulation may be expressive of these values, but those chastity and virginity concerns are neither distinctive nor characteristic of all societies for whom genital surgeries are customary.

So, the practice of infibulation may be tied to values of virginity and chastity. Yet somehow, sealing a girl’s vagina into just a small opening must have nothing to do with inflicting sexual deprivation upon women. I suppose if they started bending boys’ penises in half and sewing both sides together, that would have nothing to do with sexual control, either?

The authors outdo themselves with the next conclusion they jump to:

Female genital surgery in Africa is typically controlled and managed by women. Similarly, male genital surgery is usually controlled and managed by men. Although both men and women play roles in perpetuating and supporting the genital modification customs of their cultures, female genital surgery should not be blamed on men or on patriarchy. Demographic and health survey data reveal that when compared with men, an equal or higher proportion of women favor the continuation of female genital surgeries.

Just because women are involved with a practice, or endorse it, does not mean that their views haven’t been influenced in any way whatsoever by the values of a male-dominated, male-controlled society. A woman’s approval does not suddenly make a certain practice completely acceptable. An opinion of “but I like it!” should not exempt these values from being critically examined. It doesn’t mean that the origins of these values are now irrelevant just because, hey, women say they’re okay with it. It’s not as though every choice made by a woman is morally unimpeachable and has nothing to do with the beliefs and standards of her culture.

The report declares that “far greater attention should be paid to the perspectives of African women who value the practice and describe it accordingly (for example, as genital beautification or genital cleansing).” Where does the notion that this mutilation is actually a “beautification” come from? The authors explain:

Within the aesthetic terms of these body ideals, cosmetically unmodified genitals in both men and women are perceived and  experienced as distasteful, unclean, excessively fleshy, malodorous, and somewhat ugly to behold and touch. The enhancement of gender identity is also frequently a significant feature of genital surgery, from the point of view of insiders who support the practice. In the case of male genital surgeries, the aim is to enhance male gender identity by removing bodily signs of femininity (the foreskin is perceived as a fleshy, vagina-like female element on the male body). In the case of female genital surgeries, the aim is often to enhance female gender identity by removing bodily signs of masculinity (the visible part of the clitoris is perceived as a protruding, penis-like masculine element on the female body).

Yes, because people have so often failed to give a fair hearing to the notion that someone’s healthy, normal genitals are actually dirty, smelly and ugly. After all, our society has never held such negative views toward genitalia, especially women’s genitalia. It’s unheard of! Likewise, I’m sure that the literal stripping of any perceived hint of femininity from boys’ bodies has no connection to the lengthy global history of elevating men above women and removing any association they might have with a lesser sex. And these attempts to deprive girls of the “masculinity” they were born with certainly has nothing to do with the goal of keeping them out of the elevated status of men.

The sheer laziness and deceit of this report, from a supposedly esteemed bioethics group, is disappointing enough. That they would engage in these intellectual contortions and willful ignorance for the purpose of downplaying the genital mutilation of girls, and criticizing those who speak out against this practice, is outrageous. It just goes to show that bioethicists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about it. Despite their title, they have no greater grasp of morality than anyone else, and the Hastings Center has made that unavoidably clear.

And it’s a discredit to Lisa Wade’s blog, usually an excellent source of analysis on how negative attitudes toward women are expressed in media, that she saw no need to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in this piece before giving it her stamp of approval. Good job adding some “balance” to counter all those silly people who think girls shouldn’t have their vulvas fused shut, you rebel you!