A few of my more recent posts have used the phrase ‘gender-inclusive’ to describe the type of policy and political approach I advocate here. It’s led to a few interesting exchanges, and I think a few misapprehensions, among the comments, so I thought it would be worth spelling out what I mean by the term. I should stress that this is very much an idea in development, and I very much hope readers will contribute thoughts to the conversation down below.
A few months ago I was putting the world to rights with my pal Duncan from Survivors Manchester, when there was a mention of gender-neutral approaches to sexual violence support services. “No,” Duncan interjected. “We don’t need a gender-neutral approach. We need a gender-inclusive approach.”
That proved to be something of a lightbulb moment for me. The more I thought about it, the more appropriately it described the types of policies I’d like to see in all sorts of areas, not just around intimate violence but every topic from educational underachievement to men’s mental health to prison reform.
So, what do I mean by gender-inclusive?
Since we live in a fiercely gendered society, many areas of public policy have a gendered dynamic or require an element of gender analysis. (That is not a feminist or partisan statement by the way – if you believe male suicide rates are a problem requiring action, then you are already on board with gender politics.)
As I see it, only three approaches to gender-based policy are possible. These are: 1/ Gender-neutral policy. 2/ Gender-exclusive policy, and 3/ Gender-inclusive policy. If anyone can think of a fourth, I will be all ears, but until then allow me to spell them out as I understand each.
This is a superficially attractive approach, but in many respects profoundly inappropriate. Gender-neutral policies treat everyone as ‘people’ without gender. The problem is we do not live as people without gender, we live in a society that expects us to behave and live according to gender scripts.
One of the more abhorrently ignorant liberal political trends of the past year or so has been the ‘All Lives Matter’ meme, that emerged rapidly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. It was a profoundly reactionary slogan, because the original BLM hashtag accurately situated the deaths of young African-American (mostly) men at the hands of police into the context of structural and institutional racism. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was a desperate cry of response to a society that appeared to insist that black lives don’t matter. Appropriating that slogan to insist that ALL lives matter instantly depoliticised those deaths, removed their political context, served to deny the very existence of a racial dynamic, and in the process helping to sustain that institutional and structural racism.
In many respects, calls for gender-neutral policies and services are the All Lives Matter of gender-politics. Gender-neutrality strips away the politics, the social processes, the structures of a gendered society. I don’t think it matters much what your politics are, whether you are feminist or masculinist, radical or liberal or post-Marxist social theorist, gender-neutrality blocks your analysis and input and freezes gender issues in aspic as if we lived in some post-gender utopia.
There is also a practical issue, in many areas of policy. To return to the example above, The people and organisations who are best placed to work with female survivors of sexual and intimate violence are those with proper understanding of female-specific gender issues. The same is true for men, and the same is true in a long list of gender-related policy issues, from educational underachievement to mental health to international development.
The direct opposite of gender-inclusive policy is not gender-neutral, it is gender-exclusive policy. What is that? Well, if your social policy is designed with one and only one gender dynamic in mind, then you’re gender-exclusive. A pure Duluth Model approach to domestic violence, for example, is one example of an explicitly gender-exclusive policy.
Gender-exclusiveness, however, takes considerable mental gymnastics to sustain. A classic example is the categorisation of all sexual and intimate crimes as “violence against women and girls.” When Martin Daubney was on BBC Daily Politics last week talking (very effectively, I must add) about male DV victims, Tory minister Brandon Lewis pointed out that the £80m of funding just awarded to prevent violence against women could also be used to fund activities for male victims. I wish Martin or someone had pointed out that we really shouldn’t be funding male-specific services in this way, for two reasons. The first is that every penny of that £80m (and then some) is needed for women’s organisations, and service providers should not be dipping into it to help men here and there, which immediately has the effect of pitting male and female victims against each other in competition for resources.
The second reason is that it is not desirable, or constructive for male victims and survivors to be told that what they have experienced is “violence against women.” Issues around demasculation and male pride amongst survivors are complex enough without the government telling them that they are being categorized as women and girls in the funding of their services.
It is this type of effort to squeeze diverse and multifarious gender dynamics (and I very much include issues such as violence in same-sex relationships or the exclusion of trans people from services in all of this) which leads advocates to desperate, counterfactual denialism over rates of violence or the numbers of male survivors, or the attitude that male survivors and their advocates are somehow a threat to women and their needs.
If I may offer one example of how gender-based policy can differ, let’s look at education.
A gender-neutral approach assumes all children are identical (at least across gender lines) and would, for instance, preclude policy measures to encourage girls or boys into areas where they were underperforming or under-represented.
A gender-exclusive approach would educate girls and boys alike but then look for areas where girls are underperforming, notably STEM subjects, and make efforts to engage and inspire them, while entirely ignoring those areas where boys underperform. I would argue that in practise this is more or less what has been happening in the UK and many other countries in recent years.
A gender-inclusive policy would look for where girls are underperforming and seek to address those, while ALSO looking for areas where boys are underperforming (a long list) and devise strategies and policies to address those too. Everyone benefits.
Gender-inclusive politics is about recognising that girls and boys, women and men, have different gender-based experiences of society, different needs, different obstacles, different opportunities. It neither assumes nor requires any particular approach to gender politics (I would hope the principle could be accepted by feminists and non-feminists alike, for starters.) It is not really about demanding that everyone stays in their lane so much as asking for recognition that the lanes are there in the first place.
I believe there are three strong reasons for advocate gender-inclusive politics.
The first that it is an accurate reflection of society as it is. We do not live in a gender-neutral society and there are few elements to modern life that are genuinely gender exclusive. This is a political approach that reflects the real world.
The second is political and ethical: it is the right thing to do. You will look far and wide to find someone who would argue that a male rape survivor should not have access to services, and yet millions of men in this country live without a gender-appropriate service within a hundred miles of their home, purely because of their gender. That cannot be right.
The third reason is tactical and political. Debates around male-specific gender issues are often pitched as an argument between gender-exclusive and gender-neutral policies. For those who would actively obstruct and oppose providing help to men (whether for ideological or stingy fiscal reasons), that is a comparatively easy win. Arguing against gender-inclusive politics would be a much more tricky challenge. I’m not suggesting that advocates of gender-exclusive approaches will simply roll over, but I reckon this would at least help move the debate forward.
On that note, I will state again that this is very much a think-piece and I’ve put it here in the hope that readers will chew it up and spit it out and we’ll see how it looks when you are through.
Over to you.