The “privilege” framework is weak

1. Allosexual privilege

I can give a lot of reasons why “privilege” is a weak theoretical framework for social justice activism. But as it is for many things, I didn’t come to this conclusion by just working through all the reasons, I came to it via an experience. So I’ll start by sharing that experience.

In fact, it’s an experience shared by most asexuality activists of a certain generation. There was a time, around 2011, that activists tried talking about allosexual privilege. This was widely regarded as a failure, and now we don’t talk about it anymore, except to tell newer activists that it’s a bad idea.

The whole debacle is well-documented. This was around the time that the asexual tumblr community was formed, and asexuality discussion that used to be held internally was for the first time exposed to a much broader audience. A lot of ideas were refined during that time, often by way of flame wars with TERFs.1

One of the biggest flame wars was over the concept of “sexual privilege”. As with many flame wars it was a lot of nonsense, but there were a few substantial critiques that came up.

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A personal style guide on sex vs gender

It’s common to make a distinguish between biological sex (which includes chromosomes, primary and secondary sexual characteristics, hormones, etc.), and gender (which refers to one’s identity, or to patterns of behavior). The thrust of the distinction is to separate social constructs from biological reality.

This distinction isn’t wrong, exactly, but I have some quibbles. Mainly, I think gender is the bigger and more important concept, the one that you should be referring to in most situations. There are several things that people think of as sex, but which are really components of gender.

Here I will develop my thoughts on the distinction between sex and gender. I’m calling it a “personal style guide” because it describes how I use the terms, but I am not trying to impose this usage on anyone else. I realize some people use the words differently, and there can be some good justifications for this.

Woman vs female

Some people say that “woman” refers to gender, while “female” refers to sex. I think this is incorrect, on both the descriptive and prescriptive level.

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Disclosure in arguments

[cn: that’s disclosure as in disclosure of rape]

[This is not a response to anything I’ve seen recently.  In fact, it’s a repost of something I posted to Tumblr a while ago.]

I feel like I’ve seen a lot of arguments, where things escalate, and then one person says that they are a victim of rape.  It’s basically a way of saying that they speak with some authority on the topic of discussion.  And then the person on the other side says they, too, are a victim of rape.  And somehow this doesn’t magically clear up any disagreement or stop people from yelling at each other.

The sad fact is that rape is terribly common, especially among women, queer people, and POC, and especially intersections thereof.  In queer spaces, any given argument is relatively likely to be between two people who have each been victimized in some way.

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An activist perspective on gender studies

Another note on that “Sokal-style hoax” on gender studies (see my post, or School of Doubt)…

Although I will come to the defense of gender studies against the sorriest excuse for a hoax I have ever seen, I don’t like gender studies that much. I would never claim that the whole field is pathological–that is not in evidence. But I have read some gender studies papers, and have not been generally impressed with them.

Yes, I have, as a physicist, read gender studies papers. And I didn’t select papers by following right-wing news sources that intentionally cherry-pick the most ridiculous examples. No, I read gender studies papers as part of my work as an asexuality activist. Back in the day, my other blog hosted a journal club on academic asexual studies.  Asexual studies are very cross-disciplinary, including psychology, sociology, history, linguistics, law, and… gender studies!

The short version: Gender studies papers often say stuff that activists already know, or already know is wrong. I am not sure what advantage gender studies provides over, say, blogs.

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Boghossian is no Sokal

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (henceforth B&L) have an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” on  The article describes a nonsense paper submitted, and accepted, to the journal Cogent Social Sciences.  The authors consider it an indictment of gender studies and pay-to-publish journals.

This being a Sokal-style hoax, it’s worth recapping some of the strengths and weaknesses of the original Sokal hoax.  First the weaknesses:

  • Sokal’s paper was accepted to The Social Text, which is a journal of only mediocre impact.
  • Peer review isn’t intended to weed out bad faith actors, but to enforce some minimum standard.  The real test is later, when the academic community cites (or ignores) the publication.
  • Sokal only had N=1. Distinguishing between good and bad papers is in general a difficult problem, and one expects that in the perfect balance, some good papers would be rejected, and bad papers accepted.

Now the strengths:

  • The Sokal hoax is immediately compelling to general public, even when people don’t look into the details.  There’s value in bringing the issue to popular attention.
  • When I did look into the details last year, I found the paper’s content to be a damning indictment of the entire field:

    It’s not simply that Sokal liberally salts his article with absurdities, it’s that he quotes plenty of postmodern academics doing the same damn thing.

    Even if Sokal’s paper were rejected, one would have to account for all the nonsense already published and respected within the field.

  • There was a clear way that The Social Text could have avoided being hoaxed, if anywhere in the review process they had asked someone in physics, biology, or math to glance at it.

B&L’s and  attempt at a hoax falls short of Sokal, having worse weaknesses, and missing important strengths.

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Social justice as a meta-movement

What we think of as social justice advocacy today is a conglomeration of many groups and causes. The core groups are women, ethnic minorities, queer people, and people with disabilities. But there are also other groups that we don’t immediately think about, like polyamory or fat activism.

So, what’s the best way to think of the social justice movement? Is it a single movement with many facets, or is it an umbrella term for many distinct movements?

Here’s one way to think about it (not necessarily the only way or the best way). Social justice is a meta-movement, which seeks to change how social movements and communities work. According to common social justice standards, a feminist movement should pay attention to race. An anti-racist movement should pay attention to queer people. A queer movement should pay attention to disabilities, and so on.

There are a number of justifications for this, which I attempt to list:

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Stop telling me how horrible rape is

[cn: non-graphic discussion of rape, rape apology]

I and most people I know oppose rape and rape culture. One way for people to express this is by saying “Rape is a horrible crime.” While this is true enough, telling me how horrible rape is fails to actually reassure me. In fact, in some cases I find it to be a red flag, something that makes me less inclined to trust you. I do not know if other activists and survivors have similar reactions, but I will provide my own reasons.

Let us first consider a similar statement: “I am not a racist.” While this statement superficially expresses opposition to racism, it is not very convincing for the following reasons:

  • Even people who are unambiguously racist can and will say the same thing.
  • Rather than expressing dislike of racism, the statement instead expresses anxiety that someone (themselves) would be falsely accused of racism. Rather than doing something to address racism, they are instead creating barriers to other people who might try to address racism.
  • The statement shows a misunderstanding of racism as something that is primarily located in a few bad individuals. It makes more sense to talk about racism on a societal level, rather than sorting individuals into the racist or non-racist box.

Each of these three points has an analogue when it comes to saying “Rape is a horrible crime.”
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