February 2014


It is, I suppose, a love story.

It began as a fairytale, cross-culture love affair that played out against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal itself. It ended in darkness and tragedy.

Or rather, it ended in a man stabbing a woman to death before killing himself.

Not to worry, though. She was his wife. These things happen, men killing wives, both in fiction and in real life.

The Independent report on the deaths of Erin Willinger and Bunty Sharma makes for what I’d call easy reading. A murder-suicide, yes, but not the kind that would put you off your breakfast. You have read this story before and know it by heart. A couple falls in love too quickly, then that they find they can’t get along – they “have differences,” we will say – and so one of them has to kill the other (in heterosexual relationships it tends to be the man who kills the woman. This is, we believe, pure coincidence. Or just part of the genre, I can’t remember which). (more…)

“You made me do it.”

It’s an idea that you get used to. Your wrongness will always be measured by the degree of the response. There’s no definition in actions or words, nor any great amassing of evidence.  Just a number of bruises to count, each one showing the world how utterly wrong you are.

After the blows there will be silence. Then follows sadness and shame at what you drove a good person to do. There will be sighing, and those who stood to one side, wringing their hands, will tell you not to do “anything else to provoke him” (they mean to be helpful). There will be a few days – I can’t remember how many it used to be – when the good person won’t acknowledge you at all. You will feel hard done to (a little), but soon you see there is no point in having such feelings. People will not pity you when you are merely the cause of their shame. (more…)

My four-year-old son likes the colour pink. He likes it on everything: pink socks, pink toys, pink paint, pink glitter. Sometimes he even wears a pink plastic ring to school.

My son also knows that he is a boy, and that boys are not allowed to like pink. Not one to be deterred, he’s come up with his own solution. From now on, pink will be called orange and orange, pink.

“Are you wearing your pink ring today?”

“Don’t be silly! It’s orange! It has to be orange because orange is for boys!”

Let’s be clear: there’s no real reason why pink should be pink and orange should be orange. They’re just identifying words. Sometimes it won’t even be clear which one you should use, or if either is appropriate. Is salmon pink really orange? And coral? And what if your paint was pink but then you added more and more yellow? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. There is pink and there is orange but not everything needs to be judged on how pink or how orange it is. They’re just the outer shades, not the things in themselves. Even so, I wish my son didn’t feel the need to switch words around solely on the basis that pink is not allowed. (more…)

Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.

It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.

Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.

(more…)

Women online — they’re always whinging about abuse, aren’t they? And yet it’s so hard to stop abusing them! You might even think they deserve it. After all, a thousand twitter mobs can’t be wrong, can they?

Well, here’s problem. People who abuse women always think they have a good reason for doing it. That’s how abuse works. It’s a function of widespread ignorance and fear. And since when did an abuser really see themselves as such? They always think they are doing it for the victim’s own good, so that she will learn to be better and not make the same “mistakes” again. Corrective abuse, one might call it. Find a space with women in it and trust me, thinks the abuser, some of them will need to be tamed.

You might be a woman yourself, a feminist even, but still find it hard to approach other women as though they are human beings. Perhaps you’ve found some distancing strategy that makes you feel less of a “basic” female. That’s okay. After all, it’s hard to remain a decent person in a highly abusive environment. Tapping into a special vein of misogyny that you’ve decided doesn’t apply to you is a natural reaction. It’s not right but there’s still time to change.

To help you get back on track, I’ve written this handy, deeply patronising checklist for abusive feminists everywhere. Please make the time to read it. After all, what harm can one more passive-aggressive, “stop being such a shit feminist” list do when there are so many out there already?

So, let’s begin:

1. According to the most up-to-date scientific research, women are human beings. And yes, that includes all women, even the ones you don’t like. I know this will make some of you feel a bit icky. That’s fine. It often takes people time to get used to this idea. Give yourself the space to work on your internalised prejudice (it’s hard, I know *sends solidarihugs*).

2. All women have things called “ideas” and “opinions”. It can be difficult when you first encounter this online, at least if a woman’s ideas and opinions differ to yours. A common impulse is to call her a bigot, accuse her of various phobias and invite the rest of the internet to shame her into submission. Don’t panic if that’s what you’ve been doing. You simply need to get to grips with the idea that a person not agreeing with you is okay, even if that person is a woman (I know, a woman! Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But trust me, letting women have opinions won’t be any worse than letting men have them. You just need to overcome your fear of this).

3. For a long time it was believed that only men could have what we call “real emotions”. Nowadays it’s recognised that women have them, too, but it’s still felt that a woman can forfeit them if she steps out of line. For instance, while we know that “die in a fire” or “STFU you shit-for-brains cunt” would upset the average man, a recalcitrant woman is widely held to respond only with “sadfeelz”. This is, alas, bad science. All current indications suggest that even women who lack the #twitterfeminism seal of approval have actual emotional responses to threats and abuse. That’s something to bear in mind next time you start putting a dot before the @ in your tweet.

4. Lots of us believe that older women exist only to make us feel important, stroke our bruised egos and occasionally do the housework. Hence if you encounter an older woman online, it can be terribly disappointing if she doesn’t seem utterly bowled over by your edgy sexual exploits, or has the temerity not to think your self-centred view of gender overwrites her more critical one. The thing to remember is: older women are not your mum. They’re not going to cut you some slack just because they love you. They have their own shit to deal with and don’t owe you approval. It comes back to the “women being people” thing. Keep repeating that to yourself until one day you believe it.

5. One of the oldest forms of misogyny comes in the belief that the female body is corruptive, sinful and repulsive. You might think you have ideas about sex and gender which make you immune to this reaction and if so, that’s cool. However, if your immediate response to someone mentioning words such as period and vagina (but not penis or testes) is to tweet “fuck off, cissexist scum!” it may be that you still have issues.

6. These days most cultures allow women to manage their own relationships and interact socially without the presence of a chaperone, partner or male relative. That’s something to bear in mind if you find yourself regularly checking up on whom a woman is following on twitter, quizzing her over her online “associations,” warning people not to talk to X because she’s been seen talking to Y etc..

7. Making women feel uncertain about themselves — that their views are not authoritative, their thought processes tainted by bigotry, their suffering unverified, their “lived experiences” neither real nor raw enough to count — is a common abuser’s tactic. This may be something you do without even meaning to. You might think you have the lived experiences against which all other women must measure theirs (and that theirs will invariably be found wanting). You might secretly enjoy spreading uncertainty and acquiring obedient followers, desperate not to offend you with their silly woman ideas. All this means is that you are acting like an entitled prick. But don’t worry! There’s always time to change. Read and re-read this list, then resolve to do better.

8. Being a woman isn’t meant to feel modern or cutting edge. Womanhood doesn’t need repackaging or pruning, leaving the embarrassing “waste” behind. All women who speak are women whom, as a feminist, you should feel some responsibility towards. That’s really annoying, isn’t it? But that’s people for you.

It’s okay if all this is new to you. Take your time. In the meantime, here’s a shit, babyish cartoon to help you on your journey:

Am I abusive

Still feeling uncomfortable? Patronised? Offended? Don’t worry. This is how most women feel online all the time. Terrified of saying the wrong thing. Judged simply for existing. Frightened that if they call out abuse, they’ll just be accused of bigotry. Patronised by passive-aggressive lists which outline all of the ways in which they are to blame for all social ills. Blamed for all the bad things that happen to them, tortured by the thought that those accusing them could be right.

If you feel even a tiny bit of that right now, think carefully before you launch in to your next attack. If, on the other hand, you’ve already composed a tweet in which you describe how I’ve written a post all about defending privilege, you’re nothing if not predictable and hopelessly, determinedly wrong.

Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

Is having Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated empowering or demeaning? That’s what the Guardian wants to know, so much so that they’ve set up an online poll. Personally, I find the whole thing baffling, but then again, I don’t know what Sports Illustrated is. Is it a wank mag that everyone pretends is a sports magazine? Or a sports magazine that everyone pretends is a wank mag? I have no idea and what’s more, I can’t be arsed to find out. Hence I shall remain neither empowered nor demeaned, languishing in some liminal state of non-womanhood.

The “empowered or demeaned?” game is of course a familiar one. It’s one of those media bastardisations of feminism that ends up reinforcing the dehumanising extremes it claims to avoid. Are you empowered – a tits out, up for it, ball-breaking capitalist – or demeaned – a prudish, frigid, man-hating victim? Are you taking ownership of your life, busting out of the strictures that confine you, or are you standing back, watching while sexism is done to you? There’s no question, really, as to whether or not Barbie, or Page Three, or rape porn, or unpaid labour count as “objectively” empowering or demeaning. It’s all a state of mind. The impression is that you get to choose. There is no such thing as structural oppression. Feminist critique is no longer a challenge to patriarchy; it’s a personal statement. I am empowered, or, I am demeaned. (more…)

My feminism is not about being afraid.

Of course, I am afraid of lots of things. I am afraid of not being considered attractive. I am afraid of not being liked. I am afraid of being considered sluttish, or stupid, or frigid. I am afraid of being excluded, and I’m afraid of excluding, too.

I am afraid of being considered “just” a woman. I’m afraid of not knowing what being a woman means. I’m afraid of being a bad mother, a poor worker, a useless partner, a selfish friend. I am afraid of being poor. I am afraid of being physically or psychologically abused. I am afraid of rape and murder.

I am afraid of the structures that maintain oppression. I am afraid of describing them. I am afraid of not saying the right thing. I am afraid of saying anything at all.

A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.

Last night a friend and I were discussing the rise of SWERF and TERF, insults that are increasingly used against feminists who attack, not sex workers nor trans people, but gendered structures of oppression. Fear-based feminism would deny that these are insults at all. It would argue that the word “exclusion” is never used in vain. It would send tweets to itself and the world at large, using capital letters: TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR. It would say “it’s descriptive,” all the while making note of the latest unsayables (gender is a construct, reproduction is a feminist issue, misogyny is associated with hatred of the female body). It would watch as all space for discussion and compassion collapsed in on itself. It would think “as long as I am safe. As long as I am neither SWERF nor TERF.”

Fear-based feminism is all about attacking individuals, not intersecting structures of oppression. “Kick up, not down.” Just as long as you’re kicking someone, and as long as the person being kicked isn’t you. As long as you are the one saying “STFU” and “sit down” and “cis white feminist tears” and shaking your damn head at someone else’s supreme ignorance. As long as you are not creating (because you might create the wrong thing!). As long as you are knocking down.

A critique of gender, objectification, sex work and reproductive oppression within the context of “being a woman” should be within the scope of anyone’s feminism. And yet, if I were a younger feminist – if I didn’t already have the support of other feminists — I would be too frightened to have written that sentence. I would think it was easier left unsaid. Best focus on the surface and the individual. I would not trust myself with more, and I’d be scared of ever wavering from this. I would want to be a good girl, one who swears and fucks in all the right places, wishes suffering on the right people, says “sorry” to those she fears and “die, scum” to those whom she doesn’t want to be. I would tweet SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR. I would have no faith in my own ability to listen and make my own moral judgments. I’d be bloody terrified of ever getting this wrong, and I’d be right to be.

Internet feminism is fraught not because women cannot support one another. It is fraught because it is not a safe space. We still need the approval of heterosexual men. We don’t want to be “the wrong kind of feminist,” one who likes women too much and sucks dick too little (hence the rampant lesophobia of the most right-on masses). We want to be able to blame “the wrong kind of feminist” for everything, from slut-shaming to transphobia to the murder of sex workers. This has no bearing on reality but it makes feminism appear a far easier enterprise. Kick other women and nothing else needs to change.

The truth is that feminism is not about exclusion, or irrevocable judgment, or leaving others exposed to physical danger. Nevertheless, it challenges the structures in which we’re enmeshed and shifts the ground beneath our feet. It does not always feel protective – how could it? But it can be respectful, kind and humane, and it should also be brave.

I am a fearful person, but mine isn’t a feminism of fear. I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge. And when I talk about “fear-based feminism” I do mean it as a criticism, but not as a damning description of another human being. To be a feminist and to be fearful is human. Fears can be recalibrated. This is not a slur.

I was 17 when the allegations that Woody Allen had abused his daughter Dylan Farrow first surfaced. I’d never seen one of his films – and haven’t enjoyed any of those I’ve subsequently watched – but I knew straight away whose side I was on: Team Woody all the way.

I just knew, as did everyone else, that mad, vengeful Mia Farrow had made up the whole thing to punish Allen for his relationship with Soon Yi Previn.  Like everyone else, I felt sorry for Dylan, not because I thought she’d been abused, but because she had Mia for a mother. No wonder Woody left her. No wonder Soon Yi betrayed her. What a horrible, twisted individual Mia must be. Back then, I already considered myself a feminist, but I resented Farrow for putting on such a stereotypical performance of woman scorned. She had, I felt, let us all down.

Twenty years later the same story’s still running. Some of us have learned, through hard experience, to question it, others have not. Some of us believe this is the only thing that can make sense. After all, there is logic, of sorts. We already have our villain – angry, unforgiving Mia – and as for the idea that Allen could be an abuser after all? Well, that’s just too weird.

(more…)

One of the many things no one tells you about having kids is just how hard it makes it to have a wee. If you are someone for whom toilets have always been perfectly accessible – if, for instance, you’re neither trans nor intersex, and don’t have mobility restrictions – it can come as an enormous shock to find that suddenly toilets are the holy grail. The chances are this is temporary. Your children will grow and leave you to wee in peace. Nevertheless, in the interim it can be enraging. You’ve always assumed that the world was built around the needs of “people.” Suddenly it’s obvious that this is an illusion only the privileged can entertain.

Today my sons got yelled at in Morrison’s and (for once) it wasn’t their fault. All they were doing was waiting outside the toilet cubicle while Mummy paid a call. Suddenly I heard a woman’s voice telling them they had no right to be there and should go to the men’s. My sons are four and six. I have no intention of sending them off to the men’s toilets unaccompanied, or leaving them to wait outside. I was amazed – unfortunately, too amazed to think of a cutting response to the woman, who’d left by the time I unlocked the toilet door. (more…)

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