According to Shania Twain, the best thing about being a woman is “the prerogative to have a little fun.” Meanwhile, according to Caitlyn Jenner, the worst thing about being a woman is “figuring out what to wear” (hint: “men’s shirts, short skirts,” apparently).

Somewhere between these two extremes we find the entire range of female experience – or we would, were it not for the fact that female experience cannot be categorised in any way, shape or form. There are infinite variations thereof and to pin down anything at all is to exclude. Hence it turns out even Shania and Caitlyn are on dodgy ground. What about women who aren’t allowed to have fun? What about naturists? Not every woman wears clothes, Jenner, you bigot! (more…)

Sometime during the late 1990s, we stopped having bodies. After thousands of years of sickness, pain and death, we’d finally found a way to think ourselves beyond all that. It is, we told ourselves, a construct. None of it is really “real.” And from then on we no longer had to wait for any Afterlife to become pure spirit. Paradise, in which the individual mind defines and redefines itself on its own terms, is with us now. Thank you, Judith Butler, and all who preach the gospel of the postmodern, transcendent self.

Of course, there were some people who carried on believing in bodies that leaked and bled and bred. Bodies that produced other bodies, then had to care for them, feeding them with their breasts, mopping up their waste. Bodies that creased and sagged and weakened. Bodies that took their place in a hierarchy of bodies that gave and bodies that took.

Some people still believe in all that crap. Idiots. Essentialists. TERFs. (more…)

As a feminist, I’d like to take a stand and say something in defence of men: I do not believe that they are worms.

That may sound uncontroversial, but you’d be surprised. A study of male and hermaphrodite worms conducted by researchers at UCL and Albert Einstein College of Medicine has shown that if you teach a male worm to associate salt with sex, he’ll seek out salt in future. This is the case even if he’s also learned to associate it with starvation. The same is not true for hermaphrodite worms (who are “essentially modified females that carry their own sperm and do not need sex in order to reproduce” – you go, girls!). The hermaphrodites would much rather be eating chocolate or whatever it is modified ladyworms eat than risk going hungry in search of a mate.

Researchers had originally planned on testing relative worm preferences for football and shoe shopping but unfortunately this fell through on account of the worms not having feet. Only kidding. This is serious research, with findings that can help increase understanding of the nature and function of glial cells. It’s just that you wouldn’t get that impression from the way in which it’s been reported in the mainstream press. To look at the headlines, you’d think it was all about justifying A Man’s Sacred Right To Have Sex: (more…)

Years ago, back when New Labour were desperately trying to justify the invasion of Iraq, I remember the arguments being compared to a monkey falling from a tree. He clings to one branch (WMDs), but that branch breaks, so then he grasps on to the next (humanitarian principles). The branches keep on breaking but he keeps on believing that this one, the one in his hand right now, will hold firm. Crash, crash, crash. He does not learn from experience because it is not in his interests to learn. It is in his interests to cling on for as long as possible.

I’m reminded of this whenever the topic of male and female brains arises.

The belief that male and female brains are inherently different has been around for thousands of years. The same cannot be said for any proof. We know that there is another possible reason — perceived reproductive potential — for the construction of two social groups, male and female, with one dominating the other. But we don’t like to talk about that reason. It doesn’t seem a good enough justification for what men have done to women over the years. It makes men look bad. It makes women look exploited. There must have been better reasons, right? (more…)

Here is a challenge. You are Amnesty International. You want to take a position on sex work. It must not, however, have an impact anyone else’s human rights, in particular the “human right” of men to purchase sex. Therefore whatever your research throws up, your conclusion has been set in advance. How can you get from A to B, at least without openly treading on the corpses of too many trafficked women and girls?

Fear not! For now you can read Amnesty’s own draft policy doc and work out how it’s done … (more…)

I am so sorry for being so stupid.“

Eloise Parry wrote these words in a text to her tutors, hours before she died of an overdose of the diet pill DNP, following an all-night binge-and-purge session.

Eloise Parry wasn’t stupid. She was bulimic and she was frightened. I can imagine doing what she did. I think a lot of women could.

Right now I could provide a very long list of the dangerous things I have done because of an eating disorder. I am, however, too embarrassed to do so. They are not dangerous in a way that lends itself easily to romanticisation. There is nothing poetic and edgy about them. They are, by and large, secretive, disgusting things. (more…)

As “the face of trans teens,” Jazz Jennings is special. I have not followed Jazz’s story in any detail, but Jazz has a documentary series, a YouTube channel and advertising deals. Yesterday I caught sight of an interview between Jazz and Cosmopolitan. I read it and while I can’t say I felt particularly enlightened by a narrative which equates “plastic princess heels” being a girl, one thing did interest me: what it must be like to be the sister of Jazz Jennings.

Obviously I have no idea what it is like. I only know what it is like to be the sibling of someone “special” in other, less interesting ways. Growing up I had a role in a different family drama, one that was not filmed, nor the subject of interviews, but in which someone else, another child, played the “starring” role. My sibling was not the face of trans or any other kind of teens; my sibling was ill. But still it sucked up all the air until it was impossible to breathe.

In the Cosmo piece, the following exchange takes place between Jennings and the interviewer:

I read a Twitter chat you did where you said the hardest part of being trans is not being able to have your own biological child. Why does that stand out now, even though you’re so young?
It’s really hard for me to look at that because with such an amazing mom, I always wanted to be the greatest mom ever. People say, “Oh, you can always adopt,” and I completely agree with that. I can adopt. But, like, I’ll never have that moment where she comes out of my vag and I can say, “That’s my baby.” But since my sister has my same DNA, I’m convincing her to carry the baby for me.

Oh, good! It can come out of her vag.
We’ll take my hubby’s sperm and throw it in there and fertilize it.

I don’t know how serious such an exchange is meant to be. Jennings is 14, perhaps too immature to understand the full implications of pregnancy, surrogacy and birth (and certainly lacking a good understanding of DNA). I don’t know if Jennings’ sister is bothered by such flippant exchanges or not. What I do know is that when one child is positioned as special – more interesting, more needy, more unique – his or her siblings become bit-part players in the special child’s Noble Struggle For Self Realisation. It disturbs me to see such a narrative reinforced so harshly and so crudely, with no recognition of the other power imbalances (e.g. reproductive exploitation, secondary sibling status) which underpin it. (more…)

One of the first rules of twenty-first century feminism is that no one gets to say who is or isn’t a feminist. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. David Cameron, you are not a feminist.

Yes, I know you have daughters and that you do not actively disapprove of a) women working, b) women voting and c) women earning the same as men providing the economic system you support deems them to be doing “work of equal value” (ha!). Furthermore, I understand that you and George Osborne wish to take credit for the fact that most of our lowest paid workers are women and hence will “benefit”  most from your living wage that isn’t actually a living wage. I am sure you see the women around you as semi-equals (after all, they’re rich). The thing is, none of this is enough.

In a piece for The Times today you bravely exploit the “male politicians can use their families as examples without it undermining their professional status” double standard in order to tell us that “when [your] daughters, Nancy and Florence, start work, [you] want them to look back at the gender pay gap in the same way we look back at women not voting and not working — as something outdated and wrong that we overcame, together.” It may surprise you to learn that women have always worked. By that I don’t just mean working-class women or stay-at-home mothers. I mean all women. Throughout history, even upper-class women have taken on political and administrative roles, albeit often within the private sphere (female leadership did not start and end with Margaret Thatcher). That women’s work has been invisible, appropriated and/or unpaid does not mean that it hasn’t existed. We are dealing, not with some bizarre prejudice which has meant that women were not “allowed” to work, but with a structure known as patriarchy. Patriarchy has no issues whatsoever with women working – indeed, patriarchy depends on female labour – just as long as it continues to get the work for free (also, as an aside, “you” did bog-all to overcome the “outdated and wrong” political disenfranchisement of women. You might be posh, but you’re not Emmeline sodding Pankhurst). (more…)

They used to call it rape, back in the day. For one brief, shining moment, we thought we knew what rape was, if not how to stop it. Oh, but that will come next, we thought. Now that we have our words, we can use our voices.

It didn’t turn out that way. Yesterday Morwenna Ferrier wrote a piece in the Guardian in which she described how, in Rihanna’s BBHMM video, “the themes of sexualised violence, seemingly gratuitous nudity and non-consensual BDSM sent segments of the world’s media into a state of apoplexy.” Images of spluttering, red-faced Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells instantly sprung to mind. Imagine getting angry over non-consensual BDSM! God, I hate those bigots who spend all their time stigmatising the BDSM community!

So what is non-consensual BDSM? Well, I guess it’s like sexual abuse, but with the focus on the “sex” bit and with greater empathy with abuser, now recast as taboo-breaking participant. It’s a bit like Bill Cosby’s “sex” with the women he drugged, only edgier and way cooler. Don’t panic, though, because in the former scenario it’s just art and the way we use language to describe art has no connection whatsoever to the way we use language to describe real-life interactions (only joking!). Yeah, we used to call these things abuse, we used to call them rape. But what does it matter? Language changes, cisters. Some of the things we called abuse aren’t abuse any more. Get with the programme. (more…)

[standard introductory bit about how I shouldn’t be writing on this topic since everyone else has already and it’s obviously a bloody minefield blah blah blah]

On Thursday I watched the video of Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money. Since then I have felt extremely upset. Yeah, I know. White lady tears. Pass me the smelling salts and a string of pearls to clutch etc. etc. I found the whole thing, and responses to it, deeply triggering, especially in relation to violence I have suffered in my own life. Should anyone else give a shit about this? Possibly not. But there it is.

I know that it is complex. But it reminded me of how violence against a certain female stereotype – the “privileged bitch” – is excused, negated or justified within specific cultural contexts. Furthermore, it reminded me of how this happened to me over the course of several years. It made me wonder what, if anything, feminists who focus on other narratives – ones which are equally valid and worthy of discussion – would have to say. It made me afraid, for the first time, not only that they wouldn’t care, but that they might actually approve. And I don’t know what to do with that.

As many have pointed out, the Accountant in Rihanna’s video only gets his comeuppance at the end; the long scenes of torture and humiliation are reserved for “his” woman, his property. But for me the problem went beyond that. I don’t think it’s just a case of “he’s male therefore we don’t objectify him” (welcome to the whole fucking world). I think there is a particular cultural narrative – a misogynist one, one that is particularly prevalent in abusive heterosexual relationships and in MRA circles – which positions the white woman as more privileged than the white man and therefore more deserving of punishment and abuse (cf “masculinity in crisis,” “the end of men,” “the extinction of the poor white male,” the very existence of Ally Fogg etc.). It is my view that Rihanna’s video picks up on this narrative and grants it a form of validation. (more…)

Twenty years ago, if I’d pictured myself with children, I’d have seen them as school-aged, possibily teenage. I would not have expected to be pregnant at 40, but here I am. The past few days have seen a spate of fertility panic articles, prompted by gyeacologist Professor Geeta Nargund’s letter to Nicky Morgan, asking that asking that young people be “warned” of the risks of leaving it too late (that is, until you are in your 30s) before trying for a baby. While I wouldn’t argue that my own late pregnancy means that Nargund is highlighting a made-up problem – fertility is unpredictable, and it does drop off with age – the nature and focus of the panic alarms me. Is the problem really female ignorance, or the fact that women are being asked to conform to a series of impossible, contradictory ideals? And if it is the latter, how would additional pressure – as opposed to support – ever help?

It’s easy to say “have children young” but any woman who does so is likely to be going against a huge number of powerful cultural directives. Many young women are not yet in fixed relationships and may not wish to be, yet we live in a country in which the nuclear, two-parent family is still fetishised; even if politicians and religious leaders have become slightly more tolerant of same-sex and unmarried couples, single parenthood is rarely presented as a positive choice. The “hardworking family” –  one in which two parents are in paid employment, or one earns enough for another to stay at home to care for children full-time – is held up as an ideal, as though the practical obstacles in the way of such “hard work” (low pay, zero hours contracts, workfare, prohibitively expensive childcare) simply do not exist.

Government recognition of unpaid care work extends no further than proposals to offer tax breaks for married couples, marginally increasing the take-home pay of (usually) husbands who have stay-at-home wives rather than helping carers as a whole. Individualism and ambition are celebrated in the workplace while selflessness is expected in the home. Technological progress has meant that in practical terms, domestic labour ought to be less arduous, but increasing demands regarding what constitutes “good mothering” have taken the place of physical work. The only person who has the time and space be a “good mother” is someone with a wealthy partner and/or vast independent means, but even she will end up being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, wealth has become increasingly concentrated amongst the older generation, people who are long past childbearing age. Young people are being asked to behave like their parents and grandparents without the same access to property and stable work. (more…)

I can remember my mum turning 40. I was 11 at the time. She looked sad and told me “I feel so old” so I said “no, you’re not,” obviously thinking “yes, you are” plus “I’ll make sure I never get like that.” Deep down, some part of me felt that if my mother didn’t like being 40 so much, she shouldn’t have let it happen to her. As far as I was concerned, ageing was a failing on her part.

Now, of course, it has happened to me – today, in fact. I might be 29 years older, but I haven’t lost that sense that getting old is a woman’s own stupid fault. After all, we live in a culture in which women are constantly told that they can “turn back time” and find “eternal youth” with the latest creams and serums. Rationally, we know this is nonsense – that it means, at best, “be margially less obviously wrinkled than you would have been had you not used this product which you can’t even afford” – but still it feels as though it is literally our responsibility not to pass the age of 35 (and that should we do so, we deserve everything we get). We know what’s coming – we all get a shot at youth and plenty of time to think about how to hold on to it – therefore once the inevitable happens, we’re left feeling it wasn’t inevitable at all (obviously, I’m aware that reaching 40 is far better than not reaching 40, yet I can’t shake the feeling that it was down to me to find a middle way between getting older and dying young. Isn’t that what all women are meant to do?). (more…)

When I was growing up, my dad had one of those family in-jokes – a “dad joke” – that went on for years and years. Whenever I entered a room, he’d put on a ridiculous gameshow host voice and announce “It’s the Fat And Ugly Show! Starrrrriiinng Victoria!”

Obviously I knew this was meant to be a joke and that therefore it was impermissible to show any displeasure (beyond the requisite withering “da-a-ad!” protest). I knew my dad didn’t literally think I was fat and ugly. Nonetheless, whereas ugliness may be a subjective quality, I was measurably overweight, so the “joke” was based in a sort-of truth. My brother was overweight, too, but he never got the Fat And Ugly Show treatment. It was therefore made clear, through the medium of dad humour, that fatness and ugliness were particularly underdesirable qualities in girls.

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that there are many ways in which men express their prescriptions for and/or distaste of the female form. The fact that now few do so directly – that few would write religious tracts comparing the vagina to the gates of Hell – does not mean that many do not find more subtle ways to express their views. One way is humour – the I was only joking, why is she so touchy? approach to making women feel ashamed of their flesh. Another is the I’m only being honest tactic, in which men “bravely” confess to their discomfort with various aspects of women’s bodies, as though to do so is taboo and therefore a courageous act. (more…)

Confession: I am not sure what a “feminist choice” is meant to be, other than something that people use to defend bad arguments before deciding that the people they’re arguing with are the ones who believe in “feminist choices” to begin with. But I do think if we are to have any discussions about gender, work and possibilities for change, it makes sense to distinguish that which is inevitable and/or gendered from that which is not.

For a man, the alternative to paying for sex is not having sex. That is it. The sex “not done” is not an undue burden that will one day need to be relieved, no matter what the average adolescent boy might claim. For a woman, the alternative to paying for childcare is doing the work yourself, immediately, unpaid, and isolated from the broader economy. One is not the same as the other. It should not be the case that social class privilege enables some women, but not others, to mitigate sex class disadvantage (albeit at a cost). Nonetheless, it is not the case that paying for childcare is a form of exploitation based on class privilege in the same way that paying for sex is (and I realise the original quote is about selling, not buying, sex, but I refuse to compare apples and pears just because it suits someone else’s desire to hide the true comparison).

Someone has to do childcare. That someone does not have to be a woman but it usually is. All people – including men of all classes – benefit from the fact that children are cared for. Yet it is only women who are expected to bear the burden of this work, regardless of whether they are doing it themselves or not.

A society in which sex is not work for anyone – in which it is leisure for both parties – should not be unthinkable. It may be impossible to achieve under patriarchy (and people can and do disagree on what is the safest, most humane way to proceed in the meantime) but anyone who suggests that such a society cannot even be imagined – that even to dream of it is a pointless indulgence – might as well give up any pretence of holding men to account in the here and now.

On the other hand, a society in which childcare is not work for anyone – in which it is always times leisure for both carer and child – is impossible to achieve. And yet we find it easy to imagine. More than that, we pretend it exists right this very minute. Women who outsource childcare are vilified not least because of the myth that when it is your own child, childcare is not really work at all. It is “natural.” It is just how things should be, so why shouldn’t you knuckle down and accept the exhaustion, sleep deprivation and ecomonic exclusion that goes with it? For some, the thought that childcare is inevitably work – and that therefore we should find better ways to distribute it equally between the sexes, to make it pay better and to remove all stigma associated with it being paid for – is much more taboo than the thought that sex is sometimes, for women, inevitably work (which it isn’t in any absolute sense). It is a strange imbalance, one that can only be justified by seeing the world as one in which men “naturally” need sex in the same way that women “naturally” want to care for others (which is not, by the way, a feminist way of seeing things at all).

The meaning of women’s labour should not be contingent on how men feel about it – whether they realise that they themselves benefit from it, whether they would wish to do it themselves, whether they notice that it is work at all. There is another way of seeing things, one which recognises women not just as objects who meet supposed “needs” but as human beings who have needs themselves. Neither childcare nor sex is “what we’re for” but we are expected to live in a male-dominated world which treats us as though this is the case, not paying us for the former because they love it really, paying us for the latter because who gives a shit whether they love it or not? That each of us is making a contribution to the world – on average a greater one than the men around us – gets lost in discussions of how compromised each of our contributions is and fearful disagreements over how far one might dare to imagine alternative societies, ones which demand more from men and less from us.

The solution is not to make what should be leisure for both sexes into work for women, while pretending that what should be work for both sexes is leisure for women. That is, however, the “solution” that patriarchy offers us and it is incredibly difficult to disentangle ourselves from it without feeling that we lose what little value we have been granted as human beings. Nonetheless, that is no reason to avoid thinking the unthinkable, nor is it one to distort debates that matter and which we need to be having right now.

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes the way in which foetal scans both reflect and influence our contemporary view of how human beings are formed and how they relate to one another:

The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. […] The picture don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.

Of course, this isn’t true. The foetus depends on the gravida for sustenance and growth, and the baby would die if no one bothered to feed it and keep it warm. But it’s a nice image. Dependency, we are taught to believe, is for losers.

And yet all of us are dependent on others, not just as foetuses, but as adults. And we’ve just voted in a UK government who would like us to think that none of this matters at all. Dependency and care – not as temporary states, but as human inevitabilities – are politically unspeakable.

To be fair – and why not, since what difference will it make? – I don’t think any of the mainstream parties has truly stood for a politics of care, one that recognises the inevitability of dependency and the value of labour that takes place outside of what is called “the world of work.” I don’t mean by this “therefore all parties are the same”; they aren’t, not by a long shot. But not even the most well-meaning will commit to speaking the truth: that we are not all viable little economic units, just waiting to be fired up by the right opportunities and policy incentives. We are none of us self-sufficient and there is no programme that will make us so.

Dependency is a fact of life; unpaid care work will always be with us. Sometimes dependency is temporary (we are children, or we are ill, or we have caring responsibilities which leave us unable to do other “duties”); sometimes it is not (we are old and will never work again, or we will never be capable of undertaking paid employment). Even when we are earning money, our quality of life depends on subsidies and inequalities (we might suspect that many of the clothes and electronic goods we purchase are the result of slave labour – people we sponge off just because they happen to have been born somewhere else – but we don’t like to think about it too much).

The richer we are, the less we acknowledge our dependency on others (indeed, we might even have the nerve to consider ourselves “wealth creators”). Wealthy people – like David Cameron, like George Osborne, like all of them – have no idea how much they leech from others. Perhaps they suspect it – indeed, maybe an subconscious inkling of it makes them all the more eager to make dependency itself taboo. Because once you accept that it is natural and universal, instead shaming others you might be forced to acknowledge your own dispropportianate allocation of resources.

Many people in my family “don’t work.” My grandma is 96 and my children are five and seven, so I think they are excused. My brother is 42 and due to ill health has never been in paid employment. My mother is retired and my father is semi-retired, working part-time. I have a paid job and so does my partner. Considered as a nuclear unit (that is, ignoring everyone older than me) we are a “hardworking family,”™ but in reality all of us depend on one another to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, the care that is offered and received is not inevitable. Many people in my brother’s situation do not have family support in any meaningful way, not because of “broken Britain” or some abstract lack of moral values, but because it is hard and it costs money (for instance, I’d have to give up my job to do the care work my mother does). Some people see such things as “choices” because to them, that’s what they would be. Do I do it or do I pay someone else to do it? But dependency is not an indulgence and care is not a lifestyle choice. They are the very basics of life.

Tony Blair claims that Labour needs to be “for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.” As though election defeat is down to showing weakness, looking soft, not standing up for those who believe they’ll never be ill or old or poor. Perhaps, given who the electorate will vote for, there is some truth in this as an image, if not in any deep, moral sense. But there is also the problem of inconsistency. If you never commit fully to a politics of care but remain apologetic, treating it as a means to an end until everyone magically becomes “useful,” you will be far less convincing that the person who just doesn’t give a damn. Because most of us know the truth; care and need are part of our daily lives, whatever we would prefer to believe. And it would take a lot of courage to risk appearing “weak” enough to say it. It is easier to deface monuments, or to revert to myths of a “centre ground.” Take either of those options and at least no one will call you a mug. Dependency and care are a much harder sell, and a much harder fight.

This morning I had a long bubble bath, with a cup of coffee and a book – a pleasant Sunday morning treat. Nothing strange about that, except for the fact that my partner was out and I had one child still at home. I have long felt that treats are not something one should have unless one’s children are out, soundly asleep or with another responsible adult. This morning, however, it crossed my mind that my elder son did not really need me to monitor his Minecraft adventures and that, should he require anything, his knowledge of which kitchen cupboards to position a chair beneath was sufficient. So I left him to it.

It has taken me years – years and years and years – to get to this stage (needless to say, I’m not quite there with the younger one). If having a baby snatches away all those freedoms you’ve taken for granted, raising a child is a long, slow process of winning them back, with some sadness, yes (why doesn’t he need me now?), but far more appreciation than ever before. It’s been a while since showering and going to the toilet alone were not possibilities, but  I still remember those early restrictions. On one level I can’t imagine ever going back, which makes me all the more bewildered as I stare down at my bump looming out of the bubbles, a future restriction kicking away.

I am getting back on the treadmill – in theory, at least. Part of me does not expect this next baby to really be a baby. I have done babies. I am over that. There were those four or five years which I still see through a kind of haze – tiredness, probably – but I have come out the other side. My next child will have the body of a baby (for ease of birthing purposes) but the mind and capabilities of a five-year-old. A well-behaved five-year-old with inexpensive tastes. Things can’t possibly be like they were before.

The distance from baby- and toddlerhood has allowed me to become increasingly honest, and scathing, about some of the realities. There are toys I have in storage I now look upon in dread. Red fox running about, are you in? Or are you out? Let’s play! I can/cannot believe that such activities and mantras await me again. And childcare fees. I have, I think, paid enough over the years. I can’t be expected to pay again. Ditto sleeplessness. With my first two there were difficulties I could not admit to myself at the time for fear of being someone who couldn’t cope. Crying in the car on the way to toddler groups (but not real crying, obviously, so I’d tell myself). I have since taken the liberty of acknowledging how things really were, meaning that this next baby must come on easy mode. Which obviously it won’t.

I am having another baby for the same reason I had a first baby and a second: because you can’t half-have one. You can’t dip your toe into the water, enjoy the good bits, discard the rest. You either do it or you don’t. And to be honest, I can’t wait. Unless I win the lottery (which I don’t play) this will be my last ever pregnancy, my last ever baby, the last chance I have to feel and be all this with another tiny person. The excitement I feel at this also makes me feel irrational because this time I know. I can’t plead ignorance. So I am torn between bring it on, savour the moment and I hope he does me a favour and gets to seven or eight pretty quickly, then I can have more Sunday morning baths. All this mixed with the knowledge that by the time he gets to one, I’ll inexplicably want to do it/not do it again.

This should no doubt lead to some great conclusion about what motherhood is “really” like but it doesn’t. Only that feelings are not straightforward and I am someone who likes straightforward feelings almost as much as I like being able to go to the toilet alone. Which, for the time being, I can still do (hiding away in the bathroom with a book, yelling to the kids that “Mummy needs extra time because Mummy has to go for the foetus, too!”). Soon I won’t be able to and, as will be the case for years to come, I don’t mind and I do.

Post written on 8th January 2015

At the time of writing this I am 5 weeks pregnant – so not very pregnant at all. My period is late, my breasts are sore and the blue line on the test leaves no doubt, but it is early days and I am 39. I don’t know what the risk of miscarriage is but I know it will be much higher than when I lost a pregnancy at 31. I have not looked it up. What good would it do? But I am worrying, all the time.

I cannot stand the worry of the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, that time when you know something is inside you and that that something could be everything or nothing. The alternatives could not be more extreme. I could have a baby before the year is out or I could be empty-handed. There is no consolation prize – perhaps a niece or nephew, or a cute kitten. Nothing could replace the loss, and the risk of losing is so high.

I have developed various psychological ruses to try to make early pregnancy more bearable. I am not yet “mummy” to this thing inside me (currently the size of a sesame seed). I pretend it’s like the X-Factor. I am not “having a baby”; I have merely entered a competition that involves many, many stages. A positive pregnancy test is just getting through the judges’ auditions (trying to conceive being the producer trial run). Right now I’m nearing the stage where the heartbeat may or may not start; I look at my stomach and hope for a spark that I’ll be unable to see or feel. Getting that spark is being chosen for boot camp, then a positive 12-week scan is a trip to a judge’s house. Only after 24 weeks do you make it to the live final. I am exaggerating the odds deliberately. There is far more chance of me having a baby than there is of me winning the X-Factor. Yet pregnancy is unknowable and capricious. Like Simon Cowell.

And so the worry continues, with every twinge being a sign that it’s all gone wrong. That said, my miscarriage at 10 weeks was not heralded by stomach cramps (at first); it was the loss of hardness and sensitivity in my breasts. I simply no longer “felt” pregnant.

“But you’ve never been pregnant before!” said my partner, trying to be reassuring. “How would you know?”

But I just knew. Then again, I’ve “just known” it had all gone wrong during what turned out to be perfectly healthy pregnancies. Right now, for reassurance, I spend a lot of time prodding my breasts, hoping no colleagues on neighbouring desks notice. Then I worry that my breasts are only sore now because of all the prodding. Plus I don’t yet feel sick and I want to feel sick, just a bit (nothing too dramatic, obviously, but just so I know).

Sometimes I am afraid to move. I need to keep reminding myself that the following things do not, in all probability, lead to pregnancy loss:

  • Sneezing / coughing / “over-exertion”(which could of course mean anything)
  • Decaffeinated coffee which your body “thinks” is caffeinated
  • Tempting fate by feeling happy about being pregnant
  • Tempting fate by telling people that you’re pregnant
  • Tempting fate by telling yourself “no, it’s nothing” every time you feel one of those “pains” which, a week ago, you wouldn’t have noticed at all

I tell myself that if it was that easy to end a pregnancy, women wouldn’t still be fighting and dying for basic reproductive rights. An unwanted pregnancy could be solved by downing a couple of espressos and jumping up and down on a trampoline while eating brie and yelling “I’M PREGGGGNAAAAANNNNT!” (in much the way Noddy Holder yells “It’s CHRISSSSTMAAAASSS!”). It is more difficult than that. When an embryo wants to stay put, it does (unfortunately you cannot persuade a reluctant one to remain in place by double-bluffing fate by pretending you don’t want to be pregnant at all; yes, I have tried).

There are of course some things which do cause miscarriage: chromosome abnormalities; placenta defects; sheep (I think – I vaguely remember something to do with sheep, but I am too scared to check and just remain thankful I don’t live in Cumbria any more). And there are things which increase the probability of having one: being over 35 (can’t do anything about that); having had a previous miscarriage (ditto); caffeine consumption (I’ve given up my daily dose, but what if the embryo doesn’t realise that Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Decaffeinated Columbian Fairtrade Ground Coffee isn’t the real thing? What if it “thinks” I’m not showing it sufficient respect and decides to sod off anyway?). The thing is, I just want you to stay, invisible sesame seed thing! And I don’t know what to do to make it happen! Please?

I do not want to feel this way. I want to feel like an all-powerful fertility goddess, brazenly creating new life, not some fear-filled failure, just waiting for it to all go wrong. Since I already know that pessimism does not lessen the pain of miscarriage, why not just cherish the hope while it lasts? Somehow I just can’t. Instead I’m counting down the days till I reach the judge’s house, hopefully not alone.

Postscript: I’m now at 20 weeks which, for some reason, feels like a psychological triumph, as though somehow the foetus and I have got here together by virtue of me thinking the “right” thoughts. The first trimester, which is always so grim, has finally come to an end (it is so much longer than 12 weeks!). I know that in truth I’m just lucky yet it always feels like more than luck – a moral test of sorts. I do think if we could find different, better ways of talking about this it might feel different.

Well, here’s hoping that publishing this doesn’t mess things up …

In her masculinity-in-crisis moananthon The End of Men, Hanna Rosin introduces us to two characters: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Their purpose is to help us understand why today’s men are losing out to their female counterparts. It’s not that women are better than men, nor even that this whole “losing out” thing is a myth. It’s because women are adaptable and men aren’t. Lucky women. Poor men.

According to Rosin, Plastic Woman has “throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility” while Cardboard Man “hardly changes at all.” On the face of it, this sounds rather flattering to women. Men just plod along, being man-like, whereas we get to transform ourselves, Mr Benn-like, depending on whatever the circumstances (i.e. men) require. How cool is that? It’s in line with a lot of recent commentary on gender difference, which seeks to celebrate supposedly “feminine” characteristics – flexibility, patience, empathy – at the expense of supposedly “masculine” ones – rationality, stability, individualism. Women are, we are told, the new winners, both in the home and in the newly “feminised” workplace (it’s just unfortunate that those who live with us and those who decide on our salaries haven’t quite cottoned on to this. But never mind, the future’s female – it’s only the present that never is). (more…)

I originally wrote this piece for Socialist Resistance – in response to an idea that came from them, not me – but asked to have it withdrawn in light of this editorial announcement. I think it’s important for women’s work to be represented fairly and I don’t consent to my work being presented in contexts which don’t reflect the actual commission. The insistence that women’s voices in particular – particularly when women are describing their lives and needs – require “trigger warnings” is patriarchal to the core. When people are offended by women speaking or writing, it’s rarely women who are the problem.

In this particular instance I think Socialist Resistance need to be honest about their editorial policies and their political principles. There is a word for people for whom discussions of female bodies, female labour and male violence cause “offence and distress.” That word is not “trans”, “queer”, “marginalised” or “oppressed,” but “misogynist” (it’s been around for quite some time). If that is a publication’s desired readership, fine, but it is frankly bizarre for it to then use the term “socialist” when any analysis of the means of production expressly excludes the exploitation of female bodies and the experiences of female people as a labour class.

Moreover, if an editor believes it is contentious to claim that the exploitation of women is something which benefits a more powerful group (as opposed to something based on a random, free-floating “phobia”); if he or she thinks it is triggering to suggest male violence should be named; if he or she is unconcerned about the age-old exclusion of female bodies from understandings of what human bodies are, then that editor should say so. It’s not okay to make glib statements about not “supporting the exclusion of transwomen from women’s spaces” when that is not what is being debated. If you’re going to slap a trigger warning on someone’s writing and make dog-whistle references to phobias, you need to give precise reasons why. And if your “socialism” is actually “redistribution amongst male people while female people carry on cleaning up everyone’s shit,” you need to be clear about this. Because selling your publication on the back of moral principles you don’t have simply isn’t fair.


I am wondering if an alternative title for this piece should be “why are some feminists so mean?” After all, this is the assumption made by many upon hearing that when it comes to trans inclusion, many feminists still want to talk about difference. “But trans women are women!” we are told, as though this will make everything alright. But it doesn’t. The impression is that we are cruel. Surely what is at stake matters a great deal to trans women but very little to us? Why can’t we just loosen up and let everyone join the “being oppressed as a woman” party on the same terms? Shouldn’t the excluding be left to the men?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that, at least not if feminism is to mean anything as a political theory which analyses how and why women are oppressed, with a view to dismantling the structures which dehumanise, objectify and exploit. This is no more an abstract discussion for feminists than it is for trans people. It is not a matter of discomfort with particular words. It’s about real, flesh-and-blood suffering. If we cannot talk about how patriarchy arises, how it functions and who benefits from it, then we cannot help ourselves, let alone each other. We might as well go home.

In a 2014 piece for the Guardian, the trans journalist Fred McConnell describes gender as “one’s innate sense of self.” This is not a definition that many feminists would use. To us, gender is a hierarchical system aimed at enforcing women’s subservience. It is neither natural nor innate. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards writes, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women.” If you decide that woman = innately predisposed to meet the needs of men (and dress it up in fancy wording which suggests womanhood is actually to do with being pretty, nurturing, communicative etc.), you have a ready-made justification for abuses which have endured for millennia and are going on to this day. That is what gender means to us.

I am conscious the feminist definition of gender sounds a little depressing compared to the trans one. Maybe so, but it is a description of what is. Forced marriage, unpaid wifework, reproductive coercion, sexual slavery, educational exclusion … all of these things continue to be justified by the insistence that women are “naturally” subservient, caring, decorative etc. Moreover, the women to whom these things happen do not have the opportunity to identify out of their oppression because this oppression remains material in basis. Saying “I’m not a woman – my innate sense of self tells me I’m not THAT!” does not work (I write this as a pregnant woman and believe me, no amount of insisting “I’m a pregnant PERSON!” grants me an exemption from laws which were written on the assumption that women, as a reproductive class, should not have full bodily autonomy at all times in the same way that men do).

So what is the solution? Feminists propose that we abolish gender and accept that both male and female people are human, free to express themselves however they choose regardless of their sex. Trans activists propose that we abolish sex difference (as if one could) and accept that whether one is male or female depends upon how one identifies, using gender as a guide. Quite how the latter option deals with the material exploitation of sexed bodies under patriarchy – beyond making it unmentionable – isn’t very clear. Nor does it tell us how we might confront male violence (over 90% of all violent crime is committed by male people, regardless of how they identify). Are we therefore to assume that a predisposition to violence is merely a part of someone’s innate sense of self? And is it now up to perpetrators to say whether their violence really counts as “male violence,” dependent on how “male” they feel? Indeed, under the rules of trans politics, can we identify any forms of material oppression and dominance at all?

When feminists point out that trans women are not biologically female, we are not, as some would have it, behaving like “knuckle-dragging bigots.” We’re saying our bodies exist and matter, too. This isn’t a minor point. The idea that male bodies are the default bodies is patriarchy 101. Eve is constructed from Adam’s rib; Freud clocks our lack of penis and comments drily that “a hole is a hole”; modern medical research is still biased towards using male bodies. Denying sex difference by making male bodies the only “real” bodies is not some modern stroke of genius; it is conservative to the core. Moreover, it is directly contrary to the feminist objective of ensuring that biology is not destiny.

Many people find this hard to understand, thinking that to associate being female with having a female reproductive system is akin to “reducing women to their genitalia.”  It’s a non-argument that’s rather akin to saying anti-capitalists “reduce people to their earnings” or anti-racism campaigners are “obsessed with skin colour.” If we don’t talk about biology – and hence never demand the structural changes which ensure the world is built to suit the needs of all bodies – then for female people, biology always will be destiny. For instance, it’s highly unlikely that company bosses ever sat down and decided to actively discriminate against people who look like they might have the potential to get pregnant; they just built the rules on the assumption that the default employee is someone who definitely can’t. This then leads to enormous inequalities, forcing women into lower-paid, part-time work or excluding them from employment altogether (while allowing male people to continue to benefit from the disproportionate share of unpaid caring work undertaken by female people; unfortunately males who see “woman” as an identity rarely seem to identify with the floor scrubbing and arse-wiping aspect of the whole experience).

In all this it’s worth asking who really gains the most from trans politics in its current anti-feminist guise. Female people don’t and if we’re honest, neither do most gender non-conforming males. Whereas feminism seeks to dismantle male dominance, trans politics reinforces traditional masculinity by insisting that any quality that is considered insufficiently manly is shoved into the “woman/not man/other” box. Not only does this offer no challenge whatsoever to the global epidemic of male violence, but it ensures that women can continue to be blamed for it (If women were only more accommodating, men wouldn’t have to beat anyone up, as said by every single misogynist since the beginning of time). Moreover, this is entirely in keeping with a feminist analysis of gender as a hierarchy. When self-styled cis men order feminists to accept that “trans women are women,” what they’re really saying is “accept that my dominance is natural” (any admission that male people might freely identify with so-called feminine qualities without having to declare themselves female would be far too unsettling; it might show that patriarchy is a house built on sand after all).

A recent poster campaign asking feminists to be “more inclusive” showed a trans person trying to decide which toilets to use. On the door of the ladies’ were the words “get yelled at”; on the men’s, “get beaten up.” That’s patriarchy for you; men learn violence, the most women can do is seek to raise our voices. The trans solution? Demand entry into the “get yelled at” space, even if this also means granting entry to potential beaters as well as yellers. Accept male violence, but not female dissent, as a fact of life. The feminist solution?  The opposite: no to male violence, yes to raising our voices. Confront the system that enables the beaters. Do so even if it means you get yelled at and called a TERF and told to die on a daily basis. Do it because you know male violence is wrong, that no one deserves to be beaten and that all people should be free to express themselves how they wish, regardless of sex.

I know which option I’d choose. Other people can make their own choices, but let’s be honest: this is not about identity and inclusion. It’s about power. Think about who and what you’re propping up.


Postscript: An email trail

Bizarrely, members of Socialist Resistance are seeking to deny commissioning this article, despite it appearing on their site. This is the text of the email from Socialist Resistance that commissioned it:

The idea is that there will be an accompanying article by a trans activist and the context is that we are trying to get our heads around the debates. My view is that minuscule Trot groups shouldn’t take a line on these issues but do have an obligation to be aware of the debates. At some point in the next few months we hope to have a public meeting of some sort on the subject and it’s been quite a revelation how vociferous some people are when expressing their point of view.
So, I suppose the brief is “why do many feminists think people who used to be men are different from people who were born as women?’
As for the deadline – the first person who was asked didn’t deliver on schedule. Is Sunday evening too much of a rush?


This was their response to the piece I submitted, which is, word for word, as reproduced above:

Thanks Victoria. I can’t imagine anyone will find that controversial. What name would you like it to appear under?

And this is an email I sent querying their proposed title on the basis that people might consider it transphobic:

I just wanted to mention one other thing – I’m not sure what you’re proposing for a title but I wonder if something along the lines of “why do many feminists think people who used to be men are different from people who were born as women?’” might be a hostage to fortune on the basis that many trans activists (e.g. Paris Lees and Janet Mock) would say they’ve always been women, just not recognised as such, and also some feminists would say this isn’t what they think. Perhaps something like “feminists and transgender: why is there a debate?” would be more neutral?

All rather odd in light of subsequent misrepresentations. I’ll let people draw their own conclusions about the gender politics, group communication skills and editorial principles in play here.

I grew up in a household in which there were a lot of rules. Not just the usual ones – don’t fight, brush your teeth, do your homework. There were others: don’t nudge the furniture “off position.” Don’t touch the newspapers or remote control. Don’t unlock the back door. Don’t do anything that makes me feel unsafe. These rules were subject to change without notice. If you broke them, the consequences were severe. Tantrums, shouting, worse. Sometimes you’d end up barricading yourself in your room, wishing you’d just not bothered to move at all. It was unbearable. But then again, if someone is anxious and says they feel unsafe, what can you do? Especially if their anxiety is presented as unknowable and resistant to change. You have to do what they want, regardless of your own desires.

After all, how hard can it be not to touch a newspaper? Not to nudge an item of furniture? Not to talk at the wrong time or pick up the wrong item of cutlery or shut the door too hard? None of it is that hard, is it? And if it makes someone feel better, why, it’s inconsiderate not to follow the rules. On the other hand, how hard can it be not to make so many demands in the first place? And how hard can it be not to react with violence and aggression when your needs are not met? Turns out it’s impossible. It’s impossible to control your feelings and needs when you’re making demands of others. It’s only those who fear actual violence who are expected to hold themselves in check. (more…)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,149 other followers