When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate,

Cross-posted from: Not the news in brief
Originally published: 26.11.17

When there is conflict between trans rights and women’s rights (such as whether toilets and changing rooms should be segregated by ‘sex’ or ‘gender’) an open debate should be encouraged to ascertain how best to accommodate the rights of both parties. This hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t happened in a big way, so it’s worth looking at how and why the debate has been stifled.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gave trans people a right to be legally recognised as the opposite sex. The Equality Act 2010 gave the characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ a protected category status. At that time ‘gender reassignment’ essentially meant ‘sex change’ – the language used in the Act refers to transsexuals, and people understood ‘trans’ to mean a transition of some sort, usually (at that time) from male to female. The Act was for a person who was ‘…proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’. Although biologically impossible, sex change was recognised in law as it was the only treatment which could alleviate the suffering of a minority of people with gender dysphoria.
Read more When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate,

The Wifework of Empathising with Absentee Fathers’ Struggles, by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 17.06.17

Perhaps it’s inevitable that, the same week the Guardian decide to publish a moving, impressive tribute to two young men publicising the toxic and predictable effects of violent masculinity, they’d also ruin all that good work by printing this piece, to destroy my ever-fragile faith in the male of the species.

(Kidding. I love men, me, and I think it’s totally important to keep saying that.)

Julian Furman, the author of the piece that so irritates me, nobly explains his history. ‘I … pressured my wife to start a family,’ he blithely explains, as if ‘pressuring’ someone to risk their health for nine months is a perfectly normal marital dynamic and not something to feel deeply ashamed of doing. But Furman seems to imagine this admission will endear him to readers, coming (as it does) hot on the heels of an overwritten depiction of how he tried to punch his father who, it seems, committed the crime of being concerned about his son’s emotional health. After a lengthy whinge about how awful it is not to be the centre of attention when you have a newborn, and how terrible it must be to actually have to do some of the childcare instead of living separately from your family and calling it ‘sacrifice’, Furman ends with an impassioned plea: men need to be heard. Silence is deadly. To begin, all that is required is for us to talk.


Read more The Wifework of Empathising with Absentee Fathers’ Struggles, by @LucyAllenFWR

How do they know who to kill?

Cross-posted from: Not a Zero Sum Game
Originally published: 17.02.17

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 09.20.22A video is doing the rounds, in which a white person with a lifetime of male socialisation behind them – in other words, someone at the apex of human privilege –  gives great fanfare to the banal observation that science is an activity rather than a phenomenon and that classification is the imposition of more-or-less imperfect linguistic concepts on a more-or-less well understood underlying physical reality. On the basis of this stoned undergrad level of profundity, this person now exhorts us to lay aside our childish attachment to the classifications “male” and “female” and admit that, given that sex is a “social construct”, then it’s just frankly not real, and our attachment to those categories is an old fashioned piece of bigotry that oppresses the minority who wish it to be known that their sex tracks their gender.


Read more How do they know who to kill?

How do we get more boys reading? (Clue: ‘boy books’ aren’t the answer.)

Cross-posted from: Tricialo
Originally published: 10.10.15

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The Let Books Be Books campaign has attracted much media coverage and high profile support, but labelling books ‘for boys’ is sometimes defended as a useful tool for getting boys to read. Tricia Lowther argues that gendering reading doesn’t help literacy, and may even be harming boys’ chances.

The Let Books Be Books campaign asks children’s publishers to take the ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ labels off books and allow children real free choice in the kinds of stories and activity books that interest them. The campaign has had success with publishers and retailers like Usborne Parragon, and Paperchase, and seen support from prominent authors, but of course there have been people who disagree with us, and one argument in particular keeps cropping up; gendered books are acceptable because we need to encourage boys to read more. 
Read more How do we get more boys reading? (Clue: ‘boy books’ aren’t the answer.)

Can gender equality be ‘exported’? at Femme Vision

Cross-posted from: Femme Vision
Originally published: 18.09.13

The empowerment of women and girls on a global scale is a topic of interest to governments and organisations in the global north. UN Women executive director Michelle Bachelet recently gave a statement on the subject of women’s empowerment in the Middle East and worldwide, in which she said that “women’s participation in politics and the economy reinforces women’s civil, political and economic rights”. This is clearly a progressive attitude and we can hope that it will lead to some positive changes for women in these countries. However, who is really gaining the most from these interventions?

This question was addressed in a talk I recently attended at the Women’s Library in east London that explored efforts to promote global gender equality by organisations such as the World Bank, the UN and the UK’s Department for International Development. I was intrigued by the title of the session, “‘Exporting’ Gender Equality: Postcolonial Feminist Reflections”. How can gender equality be ‘exported’ as if it were a finished product; perfected, tried and tested? I wanted to find out. The speakers at the session were all leading academics who have worked with women in Afghanistan, India and Iran and so, being a London-centric sort of feminist, I hoped I might learn something about the reality of women’s experiences in these countries, beyond what is presented in the media. The room in which the session was held was full, so clearly I was not the only one wanting more insight.


Read more Can gender equality be ‘exported’? at Femme Vision

As it is, Genitals matter by @EstellaMz

Cross-posted from: Uncultured Sisterhood
Originally published: 03.12.14

In patriarchal heaven, a special award for total disregard and hatred of females is reserved for people who blather on about how genitals don’t matter and male circumcision is just as bad as female genital mutilation. You are more likely to encounter such drivel from those who are furthest removed from communities which enforce atrocious cultural practices like FGM. But while the temptation is to blank out their appropriative erasure of women’s struggles, there will be no silence in the face of this covert wave of misogynistic violence.

Perhaps in an ideal world, genitals would have as much importance as arms, or ears; vital but not weaponized as they are in sexist, male-centred, capitalist society. But wishing something were different doesn’t make it so. Here and now, genitals matter. And it is essential that those at the receiving end of oppression on the basis of the type they were born with understand exactly why and how this oppression is actualized. For us, this is a starting point toward liberation.

Undeniably, consent is a major issue in both female and male genital cutting. Consent  is compromised, often nonexistent, not only in the circumcision of male and female babies/children, but in cultures which provide no other option for their members except to endure it. And while tribal and religious women/men may proclaim agency and pride in having undergone the ritual, the fact that doing otherwise would have led to grave repercussions undermines the context of choice.
Read more As it is, Genitals matter by @EstellaMz

Gender Is Socially Constructed (Upon Material Reality) by @umlolidunno

Cross-posted from: RootVeg
Originally published: 15.01.14

Feminists talk a lot about social constructs. A while ago, I did a poll asking what people thought ‘social construct’ meant. The answers were interesting and varied: “it’s the stuff that isn’t ‘real’”; “social conventions”; “ideas that constitute your frame of reference for understanding the world”; and so on. This post is my attempt to share how I tend to think about social constructs, in the hopes that someone might find it interesting.
TRIGGER WARNING: LONG

I. Patriarchy Is Socially Constructed
Culture is not special to humans. Most social species have culture. One way to think of culture is: any information and behaviour that is transmitted and maintained in a population by social learning, as opposed to biological inheritance. A noticable feature of lots of culture is convergence: it makes sure that guppies all go the same route to the same feeding spot; that capuchins get the right kinds of rocks to bash nuts with; that meerkats learn how to kill scorpions and not get their asses handed to them; that migrating birds learn the right route; that songbirds don’t completely embarrass themselves with tone-deaf nonsense, and so on. It’s a set of information that members of a population all get access to, and it tends to coordinate the behaviour of the population. What makes human culture different from that of guppies is its sheer scale, richness and complexity.
Read more Gender Is Socially Constructed (Upon Material Reality) by @umlolidunno

Dr Christian and the Cartesian Dualism of the Gender Identity Debates by @marstrina

Cross-posted from: Not A Zero Sum Game
Originally published: 13.04.15

dr christian

Implicit in the discourse of gender identity is the understanding that the mind, or inner feelings produced by the mind, is who we “really are” – the body is at worst an irrelevance, at best a malleable vessel or tool for the expression or performance of the true person within, a person who has a distinct and stable “identity” irrespective of the physical conditions imposed on it by the incidental body. This view is called dualism, specifically Cartesian Dualism, after the philosopher René Descartes. There is a hierarchy built in to dualism: the mind is the real human being, the seat of reason and conscience. The body is just so much dead meat. To alter the mind is a violation; to alter the body, a trifle.
Read more Dr Christian and the Cartesian Dualism of the Gender Identity Debates by @marstrina

That’s just girls by @jaynemanfredi

Cross-posted from: Jayne Manfredi
Originally published: 19.07.15

It seems to be a universally accepted fact that girls will repeatedly fall out with one another throughout their school years and perhaps, beyond. I have two daughters, and in my experience, I can attest to there being much truth in this.  They talk behind each other’s backs.  They switch allegiance between best friends at the drop of a hat. They inexplicably blank one another. They take offence continuously. We’re told by wiser mothers (of daughters) and by our own mothers, that this is just girls. It’s just how they are. And there’s enough anecdotal evidence to more than back this up and so the maxim becomes self-fulfilling. We accept that this is the way things are, and consequently we often don’t invest the time and energy required into teaching girls to build supportive, caring relationships with one another.

Do we live in a world that teaches girls to dislike one another, from the off? We certainly live in a world where girls are raised by women who have absorbed the message that other females are competition, and that this is completely natural.


Read more That’s just girls by @jaynemanfredi

Why Does a Toddler need a Toy Mop in her Toy Box?

Cross-posted from: Never trust a jellyfish
Originally published: 03.08.15

In the not-so-distant past, the feminist in me was always a little (to put it mildly) miffed by the proliferation of toys in stores that, to me at least, seemed nothing more or less than ‘housewife training equipment’. Why in God’s name would a toddler require a miniature mop and broom in her toy box?? What is this, 1955? Are we supposed to train our babies to be prim and proper housewives from birth now? Should I be enrolling her in finishing school so she doesn’t bring shame upon the family when she doesn’t know the proper technique required to fold a napkin into a swan for Tuesday night dinner?


Read more Why Does a Toddler need a Toy Mop in her Toy Box?

Why we need a ministry of gender by @EstellaMz

Cross-posted from: Uncultured Sisterhood
Originally published: 11.02.15

When men are denied sex by women, to the point that the poor fellas have to rape and/or kill their wives, it is time for the Minister of Gender to step forward and remind women to refrain from such dangerous behaviour and return to the true path. To warn them that denying their husbands sex breeds domestic violence. And that they risk meeting the same fate as the woman who was recently hacked to death by her husband of 20-something years for committing the crime of refusing access to her body.

This is the advice that was generously given to female constituents by the Minister of Gender, who also happens to be a women’s representative in the parliament of Uganda. Only a fool could fail to understand where she was coming from with that dose of wisdom. It is one thing to live in the city, somewhat self-reliant, and scoff at such advice. Screaming about the need for women to assert their rights without taking stock of their material realities is unhelpful, even endangering, especially to those with minimal to no way out – be they constrained by the shackles of bride practice, lack of formal education and skills, and outright poverty going back generations.
Read more Why we need a ministry of gender by @EstellaMz

Games, Transforming Women and why Harley Quinn still matters

(Cross-posted from Cluster and Clash)

I can’t claim to be a big expert on Harley Quinn, but I was interested when the controversy over her 2009 redesign was brought to my attention again, just as the Suicide Squad film goes into pre-production.

There’s no need for me to re-write her history here, that’s been done beautifully by Vharley 1ulture.com. Essentially, Harley: wise- cracking, homicidal, unbalanced, gloriously amoral and hopelessly in love with the Joker, was a rare gem of the mainstream comic book world. She was a woman who was complex, flawed, smart: a fully rounded character (with very little flesh on show).

Then, in 2009, Arkham Asylum happened. Rocksteady completely redesigned Harley Quinn especially for her appearance in the game:

harley 2

Her personality altered too: she’s purely the Joker’s assistant, often delivering messages to Batman on his behalf. There was outcry, but the game was massive, and when DC introduced her as part of Suicide Squad comics, the artists took the game version of Harley and ran with it:

 

 

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If this transformation happened back in in 2009, why does it still matter? I find it interesting because it was gaming which allowed this radical shift to occur. Despite protests and demonstrations from the solid Harley Quinn fanbase, the power of the game version of her character has been allowed to take hold, to become (in DC executives minds at least), the way she should be represented. Its helpful to think quite how big the game was, and how easy it must have been to perpetuate this version of Harley: Arkham Asylum sold 2.5 million units within just a few weeks of its debut; the biggest-selling Batman comic of that same month only sold 106,835 copies.

It’s exciting that games can be influential, but when they reduce yet another female character to a sexualised object, it shows how they can have a dangerous knock on effect to other medias. Sexism in the gaming industry is rife. Voices working to change things are loud, and fan-bases championing positive representations of women are strong, but there is far to go: these representations go beyond gaming audiences (which is damaging enough), and filter through to films, toys, culture.

Back in 2011 Guillermo del Toro predicated that games, not Hollywood, will be ‘the powerhouse of creative storytelling within the next ten years.’ Lets hope the games that get picked up focus on the real gems of the gaming world: Mass Effect, Dead Space, Bioshock, or Heavy Rain.

 

Cluster and Clash: Action Historian; trapeze apprentice, hair of a laudanum addict. I have a PhD in Cultural History and started a blog so I can write about my interests outside of the academic bubble. I write about urban culture, digital technology (including lots on gaming) all from a feminist/womanist perspective.

Talking about gender by @strifejournal

(cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

At the London Feminist Network’s ‘Feminar’ in May 2010, Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon spoke about gender and what it means for radical feminism. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks. 

Debbie Cameron: The purpose of today’s discussion is to try to cut through some of the theoretical and political confusion which now surrounds the concept of gender, and it’s probably useful to start by asking what’s causing that confusion.

Conversations about ‘gender’ nowadays often run into problems because the people involved are using the same word, to mean somewhat the same thing, but on closer examination they aren’t talking about the same set of issues from the same point of view. For instance, when we launched the T&S Reader at the Edinburgh radical bookfair, some women students came up to us afterwards and said they were very pleased we’d produced the book, but surprised it didn’t have much in it about gender. Actually it’s all about gender in the radical feminist sense–power relations between women and men–so this comment did not make much sense to us. Joan was initially completely baffled by it; I realised what they must be getting at only because I’m still an academic, and in the academy you hear ‘gender’ used this way a lot.

What’s going on here is that during the 1990s, queer theorists and queer activists developed a new way of talking about gender: it did have points of overlap with the older feminist way of talking, but the emphasis was different, the theory behind it was different (basically it was the postmodernist theory of identity associated with the philosopher Judith Butler, though I don’t think Butler herself would say that feminists had no critical analysis of gender), and the politics that came out of it were very different. For people whose ideas were formed either by encounter with academic feminist theory or by involvement in queer politics and activism, that became the meaning of ‘gender’. They believed what they’d been told, that feminists in the 70s and 80s didn’t have a critical analysis of gender, or that they had the wrong analysis because their ideas about gender were ‘essentialist’ rather than ‘social constructionist’.

We don’t believe that, and in a minute we’ll explain why. But first it’s worth doing a general ‘compare and contrast’ on the ‘old’ feminist view of gender and the newer version that came out of 1990s queer theory/politics.

‘Old’ gender ‘New’ gender
What is gender? A system of social/power relations structured by a binary division between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Categorization is usually on the basis of biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social rather than biological thing (e.g. masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places) An aspect of personal/social identity, usually ascribed to you at birth on the basis of biological sex (but this ‘natural’ connection is an illusion—as is the idea that there have to be two genders because there are two sexes)
What’s oppressive about it?  The fact that it’s based on the subordination of one gender (women) by the other (men) The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
What would be a radical gender politics?  Feminism: women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?)

There are both similarities and differences between the two versions. For both, gender is connected to, but not the same as, sex; for both, gender as we know it is a binary system (there are, basically, two genders); and both approaches would probably agree that gender is about power AND identity, but their emphasis on one or the other differs. They also differ because supporters of the queer version don’t think in terms of men oppressing women, they think gender norms as such are more oppressive than power hierarchy, and want ‘more’ gender rather than less or none.

To make sense of these ideas and decide what you think of them, it’s helpful to understand a bit of history—the history of feminist and sexual radical ideas. There are three main questions we think it’s worth pursuing in more detail:

  1. Is it true that radical feminism is/was ‘essentialist’ in its view of gender?
  2. What is, and what was, the relationship between the politics of gender and sexuality?
  3. What do radical feminism and queer or ‘genderqueer’ politics have in common, and what are the key differences, and what are their respective political goals?

Is/was radical feminism essentialist?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are essentialist varieties of feminism, currents of thought in which, for instance, mystical powers are ascribed to the female body or men are believed to be naturally evil,  and some of the women who subscribe to these ideas might use or be given the label ‘radical feminist’.  But if we consider radical feminism as a political tradition which has produced, among other things, a body of feminist texts which have come to be regarded as ‘classics’, it’s surprising (given how often the accusation of essentialism has been made) how consistently un-essentialist their view of gender has been.

As a way of illustrating the point, I’ve put together a few quotations from the writing of women who are generally considered as archetypal radical feminists—along with Simone de Beauvoir, often thought of as the founding foremother of modern ‘second wave’ feminism, which her book The Second Sex (first published in French in 1949) pre-dated by 20 years. Beauvoir was no essentialist, and though she did not use a term equivalent to gender (this still isn’t common in French), she makes many comments which depend on distinguishing the biological from the social aspects of being a woman. One of my favourites, because of its drily sarcastic tone, is this: ‘Every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’.

One early second wave feminist who has often been castigated for essentialism (because she suggested that the subordination of women must originally have been due to their role in reproduction and nurturance) is Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Yet in fact Firestone did not see a social hierarchy built on sex-difference as natural and inevitable. On the contrary, she states in Dialectic that

just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilegebut of the sex distinction itself:  genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

In the slightly later writing of the French radical materialist feminist Christine Delphy, gender is theorised as nothing but the product of hierarchical power relations; it is not a pre-existing difference on which those relations are then superimposed. Delphy’s is a view which less radical thinkers find extreme, but whatever else anyone thinks of it, it could hardly be less essentialist. As Delphy herself says:

We do not know what the values, individual personality traits or culture of a non-hierarchical society would be like, and we have great difficulty imagining it. ….perhaps we will only be able to think about gender on the day when we can imagine non-gender.

All the writers I have just quoted are women who ‘can (and do) imagine non-gender’. This willingness to think seriously about what for most people, including many feminists, is the unthinkable—that a truly feminist world would not just operate without gender inequalities but actually without gender distinctions—is, we would argue, one of the hallmarks of radical feminism, one of the ways it stands out as ‘radical’.

Another thing that makes radical feminism stand out is the way it connects gender to sexuality and both to power. Catharine MacKinnon’s writings make the connection particularly strongly, as in the following passage taken from Feminism Unmodified (1987):

The feminist theory of power is that sexuality is gendered as gender is sexualised.  In other words, feminism is a theory of how the eroticization of dominance and submission creates  gender, creates women and man in the social form in which we know them.  Thus the sex difference and dominance-submission dynamic define each other.  The erotic is what defines sex as inequality, hence as meaningful difference. This is, in my view, the social meaning of sexuality, and the distinctly feminist account of gender inequality.

This shows that some well-known radical feminists have taken a non-essentialist view of sexuality as well as gender. Indeed, one of the most radically un- or anti-essentialist accounts of sexuality we can think of—as radical as any queer theorist’s work in rejecting the idea of fixed and finite sexual identities—comes from the radical feminist Susanne Kappeler in her book The Pornography of Representation (1986):

In a political perspective, sexuality, like language, might fall into the category of intersubjective relations:  exchange and communication.  Sexual relations – the dialogue between two subjects – would determine, articulate, a sexuality of the subjects as speech interaction generates communicative roles in the interlocutors.  Sexuality would thus not so much be a question of identity, of a fixed role in the absence of a praxis, but a possibility with the potential of diversity and interchangeability, and a possibility crucially depending on and codetermined by an interlocutor, another subject.

Later on we will explain why we think these radical feminist ideas about gender, sexuality, identity and power actually pose a far more radical challenge to the status quo than the ideas of queer politics.

Joan Scanlon: As Debbie said earlier, I was completely bewildered when the two young women in Edinburgh asked why The Trouble & Strife Reader (2009) didn’t have more in it about gender.  I rang Su Kappeler (see the quotation from her above) and she said:  “The thing is Joan: it’s like what Roland Barthes wrote somewhere, that if you have a guide book to Italy you won’t find Italy in the index – you’ll find Milan, Naples or the Vatican…” So I thought about this, and realised that while this was certainly true, there was something else going on:  it was as if the map of Italy had disappeared (quite useful as a way of connecting Milan, Naples and the Vatican), and instead, the geographical, political and economic reality of Italy had been replaced by a virtual space in which Italy could be a masked ball, a tricolour flag, an ice-cream parlour – or any combination of free floating signifiers.  And so, returning to the concept of gender, I realised that we need reconstruct that map, and that we needed to look at the question historically to make sense of this shift in meaning.

Of course maps change, as political boundaries change – but you won’t get far without one.  We need therefore to look at why feminists adopted the term gender to describe a material reality – the systematic enforcement of male power – and as a tool for political change.  I am going to start with a few definitions, then talk briefly about the history of sexuality, the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how the relationship between those two constructions has changed since the beginning of the last century.  I am also going to look briefly at what feminism has in common with queer politics, and at where the key differences lie.

Definitions: feminism, gender, sexuality

When I was writing something with Liz Kelly in the late 1980s, we decided that with the proliferation of ‘feminisms’ we needed to assert that the term feminism was meaningless if it just meant whatever any individual wanted it to mean.  In other words:  You can’t have a plural without a singular – so we defined feminism simply as “a recognition that women are oppressed, and a commitment to changing that”. Beyond this, you can have any number of differences of opinion about why women are oppressed and any number of differences about strategies for changing that.

In our 1993 tenth anniversary issue of T&S we then asked several women to define radical feminismand the definitions all have this in common:  they take as central that gender is a system of oppression, and that men and women are two socially constructed groups which exist precisely because of the unequal power relationship between them. Also, they all assert that radical feminism is radical because it challenges all relationships of power, including extreme forms such as male violence and the sex industry (which has always been extremely controversial within the women’s movement and an extremely unpopular issue to campaign against). Instead of tinkering around the edges of the question of gender, radical feminism addresses the structural problem which underlies it.

To define gender, therefore, seems a necessary step in understanding the proliferation of meanings which have come about in its now plural usage.  Gender, as radical feminists have always understood it, is a term which describes the systematic oppression of women, as a subordinate group, for the advantage of the dominant group, men.  This is not an abstract concept – it describes the material circumstances of oppression, including institutionalised male power and power within personal relationships – for example, the unequal division of labour, the criminal justice system, motherhood, the family, sexual violence… and so on.  I should say here that very few feminists would argue that gender is not socially constructed;   I think radical feminism is only accused of biological essentialism because it has been so central in the campaign against male violence, and for some reason we are therefore accused of thinking that all men are innately violent – which I have never understood.  If you are involved in a politics of change, it would be fairly pointless to think that anything you were seeking to change was innate or immutable.

If gender is seen, under patriarchy, as emanating from biological sex –  sexuality is essentialised if anything even more – as it is seen to emanate from our very nature, from desires and feelings which are quite outside of our control, even if our sexual behaviour can be regulated by moral and social codes.  And so to conclude with definitions, I will borrow Catherine MacKinnon’s definition of sexualityas ‘a social process which creates, organises, directs, and expresses desire’. Apart from pointing out that this clearly indicates that radical feminists  understand sexuality to be socially constructed, I won’t unpick this further here, as I hope it will become clear from what I go on to say.

A brief history of sexuality:

It is only from around 1870 onwards that medical, scientific and legal discourse began to classify and categorise individuals by sexual type – and produced what historians would now recognise as a specifically homosexual or lesbian identity.    Prior to the late 19th century sexual behaviour was conceived in terms of sin and crime – in terms of sexual acts not sexual identities. In the UK, male homosexuality was criminalised until 1967, and lesbianism, although never illegal, was repressed by other means; it was not an economic option for more than a tiny number of privileged women of independent means until after the Second World War.   Female sexuality has always been controlled by physical coercion, by economic dependence on men, and not least by ideology, and Adrienne Rich’s essay on ‘On Compulsory Heterosexuality’ (1979) shows the range and inventiveness of these means of control.

Gender is one of the ways in which sexuality is most effectively policed:  given the constant reinforcement of the binary gender system as a means of social control, if you step outside of your allocated gender role you are likely to be stigmatised as homosexual, and vice versa.  In other words, if you eschew the rewards of femininity by for example, becoming a plumber, not shaving your legs, telling a man who is harassing you to fuck off – you are likely to be accused of being a lesbian. (A man who does not conform to the conventions of masculinity, and is seen pushing a pram, wears pink, or who doesn’t like football, is equally likely to be accused of being gay.)  And similarly if you actually are a lesbian you are likely to be expected to behave like a man, to exhibit male desire – and heterosexual women are likely to be worried you might fancy them, and are encouraged to avoid women-only spaces in case there is a risk of being pounced on (this may be less true now, but was always an issue regarding women only events when I first got involved in feminism – i.e. that heterosexual women thought that women-only meant lesbian, and therefore assumed that all such spaces/events would be sexualised.)  Anyway, this is partly what Catherine MacKinnon meant when she said that ‘gender is sexualised, and sexuality is gendered’ – in other words, the power difference between men and women is eroticised, and we wouldn’t recognise something as sexual if it wasn’t about power – so anything that is perceived as sexual – such as gay and lesbian identity – is read through that lens, and thus gendered.

Early sexologists played a significant role in creating and consolidating this myth that lesbians were  inherently masculinised women, and homosexual men were innately feminine.  It is also here, in the work of for example Richard von Krafft Ebing, that you first find the idea of a man born into a woman’s body and vice versa.  Although the early sexologists dispelled a lot of other myths about sexual behaviour, and were instrumental in challenging the criminalisation of homosexuality by presenting it as ‘natural’ and innate, in so doing, they also confirmed the idea that sexuality was an essential part of human nature that was either dangerous and needed to be controlled by medical intervention, or a positive force which needed to be liberated from the repressive constraints of civilisation.  They often disagreed with each other, and contradicted themselves, but collectively they created and confirmed the myth that we all have a ‘true sexual identity’, which sexual science can help to reveal.  Some of their writings now read like complete nonsense, but it is impossible to underestimate the significance of these texts on literature and the popular imagination of the time.

Just to give you one example:  Richard von Krafft Ebing (on whose case studies Radclyffe Hall based her characters in the Well of Loneliness) argued that homosexuals were neither mentally ill nor morally depraved – since they suffered from a congenital inversion of the brain during the gestation of the embryo.  Moreover, he was convinced that you could find evidence of masculinity in female ‘inverts’ to confirm the genetic cause of their condition.  Havelock Ellis, who wrote the preface to the Well, agreed with this position, and went on to argue that you could distinguish between true female ‘inverts’ whose nature was permanent and innate, and those women who were attracted to ‘inverts’ because, although they were more womanly, they ‘were not well adapted for childbearing’ and therefore not suited for heterosexual procreative sex.   A more enlightened view was articulated by Edward Carpenter, socialist reformer and utopian philosopher: Carpenter, who used the term Uranian(of the heavens) to describe individuals who were attracted to others of the same sex,  had a more mystical and lyrical view of the whole subject (he is easily ridiculed because he had a kind of cult following and not only made his own sandals but also made them for the rest of his community, who lived in a commune near Sheffield) – but he is in many ways the most radical of them all.  He was much more interested in temperament and sensibility than in outward (biological) signs of deviation from the conventions of masculinity and femininity, and he also believed that those who belonged to ‘the intermediate sex’ could bridge differences of class and race, and be interpreters between men and women, as they shared the characteristics of both.  Economists and politicians of the movement thought Carpenter’s views were sentimental nonsense, but he comes closest of all the sexologists to saying that the gender itself is the problem, and the extremes of the binary gender system are detrimental to the kind of ideal society he imagines.

I’m not going to plough my way through all the sexologists of the 20th century – no doubt you are all more familiar with the laboratory experiments of Masters and Johnson, and the best-selling surveys of sexual behaviour by Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite in the 1950s and 1980s respectively, which rocked the establishment in showing, amongst other things, the diversity of sexual behaviour and prevalence of homosexual desire amongst the heterosexual population at large in the US.  The main point about the later sexologists, what they have in common, is that they made sex the subject of scientific study, and very few of them looked at gender per se, or at the social context and meaning of sexuality.

The relation of gender to sexuality changed in the late 60s and 1970s, largely because of the emergence of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.  With the rise of feminism, and the publication of numerous key texts such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics(1970), lesbianism was no longer seen as a subcategory of male homosexuality, and not just as a sexual identity, but as political identity, within the context of gendered power relations – in other words it was possible to see being a lesbian as about being a woman, challenging heterosexuality as an institution, and challenging power within personal relationships.  I do think of myself as extraordinarily fortunate to have found feminism in the late 1970s (when I was in my early 20s) – as I would otherwise have been completely persuaded that I was an invert, or god forbid, a Uranian, or whatever, if I had been born in an earlier era.  The women’s movement of the late 60s and 70s offered many women an unprecedented opportunity to make sense of their experience as women, theorise about it, and do something about it.

We often forget that thinkers within the gay liberation movement in the early days had much in common with feminism: deconstructing masculinity, questioning the nuclear family, challenging misogyny, and seeking a sexuality of equality.  Although feminists continued to work very much in coalition with gay men, against a common oppression – institutionalised heterosexuality – we also found that our focus on the social construction of sexuality was at odds with the predominant view in the gay movement that sexuality was innate.   For example, in the late 1980s, during the campaign against clause 28 of the local government bill (which banned local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and ‘pretended’ ie same sex families, in schools) the main argument from within the gay movement was that you couldn’t make someone gay, that gays only represented 10% of the population, that you were born gay, and therefore represented no threat to the establishment.  And of course, as feminists we were arguing the opposite, that you could indeed change your sexuality, and we did indeed seek to be a threat to the establishment. The AIDS epidemic politicised large numbers of gay men around sexuality, defending individual sexual freedom against the repressive politics of the far right, but in resorting once again to a plea for tolerance from the heterosexual world, and a request for inclusion in heterosexual privilege (civil partnerships etc) – which was strategically successful in achieving those goals precisely because they were not perceived as threatening to the liberal establishment –  it is possible that this movement paved the way for a politics which not only challenged heteronormative behaviour, but sought to create a space for all the casualties of gender who fall outside of the binary gender system and outside of a parallel binary conception of sexuality. You may well say that feminism seemed to offer precisely such a politics, and such a space, so it is important to look, therefore, at the differences between feminism and the queer politics.

What radical feminism has in common with queer politics is

  • An understanding that gender and sexuality are socially constructed
  • A recognition that binary gender roles are oppressive
  • An understanding that gender roles are produced through performance, and confirmed by their constant re-enactment
  • A commitment to challenging heteronormative assumptions and practices

The differences between radical feminism and queer politics are

  • Radical feminism is a materialist analysis which argues that gender is not produced merely through discourse and performance, but is a system within which one gender (male) has economic and political power, and the other (female) does not – and the dominant group has an investment in keeping it that way.
  • Radical feminism involves an understanding that you cannot produce (or challenge) the system of gender merely through discourse or individual performance – by adopting certain clothes, language, or even changing your anatomical body.  Outside of certain limited contexts, the dominant culture will still read these gestures according to the dominant social codes – and seek to categorise you as a man or woman.  (In other words, on the tube, in the supermarket, at work, these individual gestures or performative statements will be unintelligible, and quite ineffectual as a challenge to the system of gender).
  • Judith Butler argues that feminism, by asserting that women are a group with common characteristics and interests, has reinforced the binary view of gender, in which masculine and feminine genders are built on male and female bodies.  Feminists do indeed argue that women have a common political interest (rather than exhibiting common characteristics), and that women suffer from a common oppression (which they experience in different ways according to other forms of power relationships, including race and class), and that women’s bodies are the site of much of that oppression – but this is not to argue that the category woman is an undifferentiated category.  It is simply to argue that so long as women are oppressed as women, there is a need for a common political identity, in order to organise effectively to resist that oppression.
  • Radical feminism is committed to changing the gender system, and challenging oppression in all its forms.   We thus have no investment in being outlaws, which comes from a romanticised notion of oppression.  Moreover, feeling oppressed is not the same as being oppressed.  In order to celebrate your identity as an outlaw, you have to have an investment in the system which makes you an outlaw.  Queer seems to me to encompass the most extreme casualties of the gender system, and to create an umbrella which covers those who are unwilling social outlaws (usually from the poorest and most disenfranchised groups in society, with no buffer against social prejudice – i.e. those who are outlawed without choice),  and those for whom playing at being outlaws is a privileged intellectual game rather than a hard lived reality.
  • Queer is by its own definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.  Queer then, demarcates “not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative”. It follows from this that Queer politics has no particular political goals, apart from challenging the dominant normative discourses, and if they change, Queer politics would then have to change its position in opposition to whatever is currently normative.  It’s not clear to me therefore, what its specific political goals are.
  • Queer embraces a wide array of non-normative sexual identities and practices, including some that are heterosexual:: “Sadism and masochism, prostitution, sexual inversion, transgender, bisexuality, asexuality, intersexuality are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for investigations into differences of class, race and ethnicity, and as opportunities to reconfigure understandings of pleasure and desire.” For example, Pat Califia,  in Feminism and Sadomasochism writes about how sadomasochism encourages fluidity, and questions the naturalness of binary dichotomies in society:

The dynamic between a top and a bottom is quite different from the dynamic between men and women, blacks and whites, or upper- and working- class people. That system is unjust because it assigns privileges based on race, gender, and social class. During a S/M encounter, roles are acquired and used in very different ways. If you don’t like being a top or bottom, you switch your keys. Try doing that to your biological sex or your race or your socioeconomic status.

  • This point of view places these scholars of Queer theory in conflict with the radical feminist view that sadomasochism, prostitution and pornography,  are all oppressive practices.
  • Radical feminism argues that all power differences are sexualised, including those constructed through race and ethnicity, class and disability, and that pornography and the sex industry as a whole is one of the clearest and most pernicious manifestations of that – eroticised power difference is the stuff of porn, and this is acted out on real bodies, not in the imagination of the consumer. Moreover, we need to be clear about whose pleasure and desire we are talking about – in an industry based on sexual exploitation and abuse.   S&M was the subject of much heated debate within feminism in the 1980s, and here again, radical feminism saw nothing new or radical about recreating the dominance and subordination dynamic – already prevalent within heterosexuality – within non-heteronormative relationships.  All of these phenomena, embraced as anti-heteronormative – by queer politics, are already embraced by patriarchy, so there’s no great revolution here.  Radical feminists seek not merely to challenge but to dismantle the structures of patriarchy; the challenge that queer offers to the normative culture is a provocation with no political aim to dismantle the normative, on which, by its own definition, it depends for its existence as an oppositional position.  It appears that queer is thus not attempting to seek liberation from the system of gender difference, but simply to take liberties with it.
  • In order to change the social system that creates gender difference as we know it, you have to address the underlying structures that produce and sustain gender difference – and you have to seek to eradicate gender itself.

Without gender, without power difference, sexuality could simply be the expression of desire between equal subjects.  (see Su’s quote in the handout).

At the beginning of this talk, Debbie quoted Shulamith Firestone, and it seems entirely appropriate therefore for me to conclude by returning to a central argument of ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, one which encapsulates the radical feminist approach to gender: ( I paraphrase):  The intellectual and theoretical task of feminism is to understand gender as a system which creates and maintains inequality.  The political task of feminism is to eradicate gender.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Who owns gender by @StrifeJournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Delilah Campbell reflects on the deeper meaning of recent conflicts between feminists and transgender activists.

For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

Liberal consensus

This was a notable climbdown by one of the bastions of British liberal journalism. Only a couple of weeks earlier, another such bastion, the Observer‘s sister-paper The Guardian, had published an opinion piece on ‘paedophilia’ (aka the sexual abuse of children), which argued for more understanding and less condemnation. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair that was certainly controversial, and plenty of readers found it offensive. But it wasn’t removed from the website, nor followed by a grovelling apology. Evidently it was put in the category of unpopular opinions which have a right to be aired on the principle that ‘comment is free’. But when it comes to offending trans people, it seems the same principle does not apply.

It’s not just the liberal press: a blogger who re-posted Burchill’s piece, along with examples of the abuse Suzanne Moore had received on Twitter, found she had been blocked from accessing her own blog by the overseers of the site that hosted it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist activist and journalist Julie Bindel, whose criticisms of trans take the form of political analysis rather than personal abuse, has for some time been ‘no platformed’ by the National Union of Students—in other words, banned from speaking at events the NUS sponsors, or which take place on its premises.

More generally, if you want to hold a women-only event from which trans women are excluded, you are likely to encounter the objection that this exclusion is illegal discrimination, and also that the analysis which motivates it—the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women—is itself an example of transphobia. Expressed in public, this analysis gets labelled ‘hate-speech’, which there is not only a right but a responsibility to censor.

The expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: if you ask yourself what other views either may not be expressed on pain of legal sanction, or else are so thoroughly disapproved of that they would rarely if ever be permitted a public airing (and certainly not an unopposed one), you come up with examples like incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. How did it come to be the case that taking issue with trans activists’ analyses of their situation (as Julie Bindel has) or hurling playground insults at trans people (as Julie Burchill did) automatically puts the commentator concerned in the same category as a Nick Griffin or a David Irving?

Silencing their critics, often with the active support of institutions that would normally deplore such illiberal restrictions on free speech, is not the only remarkable achievement the trans activists have to their credit. It’s also remarkable how quickly and easily trans people were added to the list of groups who are legally protected against discrimination, and even more remarkable that what was written into equality law was their own principle of self-definition—if you identify as a man/woman then you are entitled to be recognized as a man/woman. In a very short time, this tiny and previously marginal minority has managed to make trans equality a high profile issue, and support for it part of the liberal consensus.

Here what interests me is not primarily the rights and wrongs of this: rather I want to try to understand it, to analyse the underlying conditions which have enabled trans activists’ arguments to gain so much attention and credibility. Because initially, to be frank, I found it hard to understand why the issue generated such strong feelings, and why feminists were letting themselves get so preoccupied with it. Both the content and the tone of the argument reminded me of the so-called ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, when huge amounts of time and energy were expended debating the rights and wrongs of lesbian sadomasochism and butch/femme relationships. ‘Debating’ is a euphemism: we tore ourselves and each other apart. I don’t want to say that nothing was at stake, but I do think we lost the plot for a while by getting so exercised about it. The trans debate seemed like another case where the agenda was being set by a few very vocal individuals, and where consequently an issue of peripheral importance for most women was getting far more attention from feminists than it deserved.

But as I followed the events described at the beginning of this piece, and read some of the copious discussion that has circulated via social media, I came to the conclusion that what’s going on is not just a debate about trans. There is such a debate, but it’s part of a much larger and more fundamental argument about the nature and meaning of gender, which pits feminists (especially the radical variety) against all kinds of other cultural and political forces. Trans is part of this, but it isn’t the whole story, nor in my view is it the root cause. Actually, I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true: it is the more general shift in mainstream understandings of gender which explains the remarkable success of trans activism.

Turf wars

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now been discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority. Opposition to this takes the form of demanding recognition for ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ as categories, and for the right of any trans person to be treated as a member of the gender group they wish to be identified with.

At this point, though, there is a divergence of views. Some versions of the argument are based on the kind of biological essentialism which I described earlier: the gender with which a person identifies—and thus their status as either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’—is taken to be determined at or before birth. The old story about transsexuals—that they are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’, or vice-versa—has morphed into a newer version which draws on contemporary neuroscience to argue that everyone has a gendered brain (thanks to a combination of genes and hormonal influences) which may or may not be congruent with their sexed body. In ‘trans’ individuals there is a disconnect between the sex of the body and the gender of the brain.

In other versions we see the influence of the second trend, where the main issue is individual freedom of choice. In some cases this is allied to a sort of postmodernist social utopianism: trans is presented as a radical political gesture, subverting the binary gender system by cutting gender loose from what are usually taken to be its ‘natural’, biological moorings. This opens up the possibility of a society where there will be many genders rather than just two (though no one who makes this argument ever seems to explain why that would be preferable to a society with no genders at all). In other cases, though, choice is presented not as a tactic in some larger struggle to make a better world, but merely as an individual right. People must be allowed to define their own identities, and their definitions must be respected by everyone else. On Twitter recently, in an argument about whether someone with a penis (and no plans to have it removed) could reasonably claim to be a woman, a proponent of this approach suggested that if the person concerned claimed to be a woman then they were a woman by definition, and had an absolute right to be recognized as such. In response, someone else tweeted: ‘I’m a squirrel’. Less Judith Butler, more Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

Proponents of the first, essentialist account are sometimes critical of those who make the second, and ironically their criticism is the same one I would make from a radical feminist perspective: this post-feminist understanding of social constructionism is trivializing and politically vacuous. What trans essentialists think feminists are saying when they say gender is socially constructed is that gender is nothing more than a superficial veneer. They reject this because it is at odds with their experience: it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it. But in this case it’s a reaction based on a misreading: for most feminists, ‘socially constructed’ does not imply ‘trivial and superficial’.

In the current of feminism T&S represents, which is radical and materialist, gender is theorized as a consequence of social oppression. Masculinity and femininity are produced through patriarchal social institutions (like marriage), practices (like the division of labour which makes women responsible for housework and childcare) and ideologies (like the idea of women being weak and emotional) which enable one gender to dominate and exploit the other. If these structures did not exist—if there were no gender—biological male/female differences would not be linked in the way they are now to identity and social status. The fact that they do continue to exist, however, and to be perceived by many or most people as ‘natural’ and immutable, is viewed by feminists (not only radical materialists but most feminists in the tradition of Beauvoir) as evidence that what is constructed is not only the external structures of society, but also the internalized feelings, desires and identities that individuals develop through their experience of living within those structures.

Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away. But they don’t agree that if something is ‘deep’ then it cannot be socially constructed, but must instead be attributed to innate biological characteristics. For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will. Rather you have to change the nature of social experience through collective political action to change society.

The rainbow flag meets the double helix

When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression).

Once again, though, this development is not specific to trans politics. Trans activists are not the first group to have made the journey from radical social critique to essentialism and neoliberal individualism. It is a more general trend, seen not only in some ‘post-feminist’ campaigning by women, but also and perhaps most clearly in the recent history of gay and lesbian activism.

In the heyday of the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements, the view was widely held that sexuality was socially constructed, and indeed relatively plastic: lesbianism, in particular, was presented by some feminists as a political choice. But in the last 20 years this view has largely withered away. Faced with well-organized opponents denouncing their perverted ‘lifestyle choices’, some prominent gay/lesbian activists and organizations began promoting the counter-argument that homosexuals are born, not made. Of course the ‘born that way’ argument had always had its supporters, but today it has hardened into an orthodoxy which you deviate from at your peril. Not long ago the actor Cynthia Nixon, who entered a lesbian relationship fairly late in life, made a comment in an interview which implied that she didn’t think she’d always been a lesbian. She took so much flak from those who thought she was letting the side down, she was forced to issue a ‘clarification’.

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

For radical feminists this will never be enough. Radical feminism aspires to be, well, radical. It wants to preserve the possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world. The attack on feminist social constructionism is ultimately an attack on that possibility. And when radical feminists take issue with trans activists, I think that is what we need to emphasize. What’s at stake isn’t just what certain individuals put on their birth certificates or whether they are welcome at certain conferences. The real issue is what we think gender politics is about: identity or power, personal choice or structural change, reshuffling the same old cards or radically changing the game.

[1] A more detailed discussion of feminist ideas about gender, which looks at their history and at what is or isn’t shared by different currents within feminism, can be found in Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon’s article ‘Talking about gender’.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Men and Words at Hell, Yeah. I’m a Feminist

(cross-posted from hell, yeah. I’m a feminist)

As a result of a recent exchange on a blog in which I felt insulted enough by the patronizing tone taken by the moderator that I decided not to participate any further, while another commenter (a male) responded with a mere “LOL”, I asked yet another commenter (also a male) why he thought our reactions were so different. “Don’t men know when they’re being insulted?” I asked.

His response? “We know, we just don’t care. At the end of the day, it’s just words on a screen. Most of us don’t expect to convince anyone else, this is a social event of sorts for people who like to talk about stuff.”

He went on to say “We don’t expect to change anything, we’re just engaging in venting, observation, and entertainment. If we learn something new, all the better.”

I find this horrifying. Words have meaning! Meaning is important! At first I thought maybe that’s just a philosopher/non-philosopher thing, but then I recalled conversations with male philosophers in which I similarly felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously, in which I felt like, the man nailed it, “entertainment”.

I don’t feel that when I speak with women on these matters. So it’s a sexist thing, not a philosopher thing.

But it’s not that men don’t take women seriously, it’s that they don’t take each other seriously either. Suddenly their attitude toward debate—it’s a game—makes sense.

As for the convincing, the changing, maybe that’s a non-teacher-non-social-activist thing, but again, if it’s a male thing, then again, it’s horrifying. No wonder the world isn’t getting better and better: the people in power aren’t talking, thinking, acting to make it so. Their discussions on policy are just “venting, observation, and entertainment”!

I wonder if at its root, it’s part of the male relationship to words. Women are better with language, so it’s said, whether because of neurology or gendered upbringing; men are better with action, so it’s said, again whether by neurology or gendered upbringing. So that would explain why women consider words to be important, and men don’t.

Hell Yeah, I’m a Feminist: a radical feminist blog mostly about sexism

Gender bias in the hiring process by @CeliaHubbartt

(Cross-posted from Du erkennst much nicht)

According to a recent study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, managers of both sexes are twice as likely to hire a male than a female candidate.

The study, which was conducted by business-school professors from Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago, as managers, both male and female, to hire people to handle basic mathematical tasks. The candidates all has equal credentials and skills, but managers of both genders were more likely to hire men.

Throughout the interviews, it was seen that the male candidates boasted about their abilities, while women downplayed them. Even in instances where the tasks were performed equally, men were still more likely to be hired. And what’s worse is, when women were proven to perform better than males, men were still more likely to be hired.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of gender consulting firm 20-first and author of How Women Mean Business, writes in the Harvard Business Review that this is a typical example of the hiring process.

“Until hiring and promotion practices change, women can ‘lean in’ all they like, graduate in record numbers from top universities, and dominate buying decisions–but they still are much less likely to make it to the top,” Wittenberg-Cox writes in HBR. “The corporate world is led by men confident that they are identifying talent objectively and effectively. The reality, underlined by this and many other reports, is that decision making about talent is rife with unconscious assumptions and personal biases.”

Wittenberg-Cox gives three examples that could help end the gender bias in the hiring process.

Make gender bias a business issue.

If the results of the test don’t bother you initially, think about the fact that underqualified men were hired over more talented women. Wittenberg-Cox says you should reframe gender bias as a business issue, not a women’s issue. “If managers are choosing less qualified men over more qualified women, the company is clearly losing valuable talent,” she writes. “Even if hiring managers are choosing equally qualified men, if they’re doing it in dramatically greater numbers (as the study above shows they do), the company is still missing an opportunity to build the kind of balanced workforce that we know produces more creative results.”

Change people’s minds.

Wittenberg-Cox says leaders need to start educating themselves and managers about the issue of gender bias instead of putting the burden on women to change themselves. “You can expect all your women to suddenly change their behavior and start overselling their skills, as the men in the study above did–but frankly, do you really want them to?” she writes. Research shows when women boast about their skills they are perceived negatively, instead of as confident and ambitious. You need to teach your staff, male and female, about the different behaviors men and women exhibit and how to effectively and accurately perceive them.

Change your hiring process.

If gender bias runs deep in the corporate world, that means HR policies are often rife with bias too. Wittenberg-Cox writes that many large companies consider “ambition” to be an important character trait for their leadership candidates. When candidates are seen as “ambitious,” they’re usually boasting, or overselling their talents–a trait studies have shown to be predominately male, she writes. Hiring managers typically believe erroneously that the most self-promotional candidates are objectively the best. “This does not make room to develop the majority of today’s talent for tomorrow’s world. Nor allow a variety of leadership styles to co-exist,” she adds.

Boy Wonder by Head in Books

(Cross-posted from Head in Books)

I’ve had a version of this in my drafts pretty much since I started this blog. I wasn’t planning on revisiting it any time soon but a real life conversation earlier today and then a brief Twitter exchange this evening have me wound me up so much on the topic that – weeeeee – off I go on an autorant.

It’s the whole boy thing. Or the girl thing. The pink/blue thing. The nature/nurture thing. I suppose, it’s the wilful blind eye turned to the fact that children (people, really) are an exercise in and-and-and rather than simply either/or.

Little Princess

My youngest child (who happens to be a boy) has brought this book home from nursery for the last two weeks running. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that he doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore (which is a burden he will have to live with). We’ve read it what feels like endless times, but in case you’re not familiar with the work, Little Princess wants (you’ve guessed it) a sister, because a brother will be smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. She wants a sister, notwithstanding the gentle reminder from the maid, the admiral and, er, the Prime Minister (I wonder if David Cameron will have a word with No3?) that she can be just as smelly, noisy and various-toyed as the boyiest boy of her imagination.

Of course she goes on to have a brother. Of course it all ends happily.

But.

There seem to be a lot of grown-ups who would benefit from reading it too. Grown-ups who treat girl babies as a prize, a lucky escape from the one-step-up-from-bubonic-plague-unwelcomeness of a smelly, noisy, rough boy. Grown-ups who like girls because they are determined that they will be quiet, and affectionate and amenable to dressing up. Grown-ups who know that girls will play nicely whereas boys will blaze a trail of destruction through their parents’ homes and lives. Grown-ups who believe, in short, that girls enhance, while boys, on balance, detract.

It’s not everyone, of course. I’d hope it’s not even the majority, despite the inexorable increase in gendered toys and books and clothes and the rest. It’s a lot, though, and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair to the girls who want to wear a superhero costume and go out to save the world rather than waiting, hair intact, to be rescued. It’s equally unfair to the boys who are afraid of heights and aren’t so keen on the prize awaiting them at the top of the tower anyway. It demands one thing and one thing only of both boys and girls, and makes any form of deviance from that one thing problematic. I don’t want my little girl to be constrained in what she can do, but nor do I want that for her brothers.

Are my children different from each other? Well yes, of course, but not necessarily along “boy/girl” lines. Plus, I only have a sample size of three – and for all my good intentions, I know that I treat them differently and project my own experience and expectations on to them. The theory and debate around gender and socialisation fascinates me, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to add to it.

I just think that we are, too often, unrealistic in our expectations of parenthood and unrealistic in our expectations of what our children will be. We need them, increasingly, to cause as little upheaval as possible, and the image of a cute, biddable daughter seems to fit the bill most nearly.

To the people who want a girl because of that, I want to say: what will you do if she doesn’t match up? What will you do if she wants to run around, and play fight; get covered in mud and wear scruffy clothes? Even if she doesn’t, how do you think she’ll get on with boys in later life if you tell her to expect them to be rough and noisy and train her to notice it whenever she sees it? What are you telling her about those who don’t meet the expected standard of maleness: that they are somehow not real boys, real men?

I think it’s normal and natural to have a sneaking preference for one or the other. That little, guilty,  sinking feeling  when the preference isn’t realised – no matter how much delight there is in the actual, rather than the dream, baby – is no cause for shame either. But if you’re sure that you don’t want a boy because they’re noisy or rough or smelly, or because the clothes or toys that come with him aren’t quite the thing, I’d show you my loving, dreamy, imaginative, boisterous, beautiful boys and ask if you’re absolutely sure.

Or perhaps I’d just introduce you to the Little Princess.

picture from amazon.co.uk

 

In Defence of Pink by @JumpMag

When I say that I am the founder of a gender-neutral magazine for kids, and mention my objection to the ‘pinkification’of girls, there are generally two responses.

‘Oh, cool. I hate this obsession with pink for girls’.

or

‘What’s wrong with pink? My daughter likes princesses. Why should you tell me that it is wrong for my daughter to love pink?

To clear up this misunderstanding, I would like to state publically –I don’t hate pink. I don’t think there is anything wrong with girls liking pink, or wanting to be a princess. When my daughter was younger, she was often clad in pink, from top to toe. She even had a [gasp] Disney Princess bedr
oom.

My 12 year old daughter isn’t a fan of pink anymore, but she has more nail polish than I have! It doesn’t stop her climbing trees, playing football or doing anything that she wants to do.

I don’t want to ban pink, or stop girls wearing pink. I am for MORE choice, not less. Right now the choice for girls is not, ‘Which colour of shoes do you want?’, but ‘Which shade of pink shoes do you want?’Why limit girls to pink and purple shades, when we have a whole rainbow of colours?

When we look at the range of toys available for boys and girls, and how to make them ‘gender neutral’, we often see a troubling thing happen –the disappearance of ‘girls’toys’. German blogger Charlott Schoenwetter makes this point in this excellent post Pretty In Pink (in German, but worth a read, even if you have to throw yourself on the mercy of Google Translate).

Charlott tells the story of a school book Mathestarts 4, which showed two children, a boy and a girl, buying toys. In the book released in 2005, Thomas buys a football goal and a Gameboy, while Tanja bought a doll and a toy horse. When the book was reissued at a later date, Thomas still bought a football goal, and swapped his Gameboy for a camera. Tanja now wanted a badminton set and a board game compendium. Thomas didn’t wish for a doll in this new edition; instead all ‘girl toys’ were removed completely.

What is the take-away from this kind of change? That boys’ toys have positive associations and girls’ toys are negative – or perhaps frivolous. We shouldn’t make girls feel bad about liking Barbie dolls, just as young women shouldn’t be made to feel they are betraying feminism by wearing lipstick or high heels.

The ‘pinkification’of girls is part of the trend to ueberfeminise women, and this is what I’d like to challenge. The pressure that young girls are under to be feminine, to be pretty. Girls are faced with ‘perfect’images that they can never live up to.

The singer Lorde tweeted this picture recently, pointing out the difference between two photos taken on the same day –one photoshopped to make her look immaculate, the other her natural skin, including imperfections.

i find this curious – two photos from today, one edited so my skin is perfect and one real. remember flaws are ok :-)

BkBbYYlIUAAo2Ll

Girls look at pictures in magazines and compare themselves with the flawless celebrities shown there. The use of photoshop isn’t restricted to evening skin tone; entire bodies are altered, waists slimmed, necks lengthened, legs stretched. No wonder one in five 7-11 year olds have been on a diet (as research by Girlguiding revealed last year)

Boys don’t escape unscathed either. Not every boy wants to be an explorer or a scientist. Not every boy loves football, but if you were to look at products aimed at them, you would never know this. Where birthday cards for girls are a sea of pink and glitter, cards for boys are a raging river of testosterone and adventure.

How many boys have been told, ‘No, that is for girls’, when they started playing with a toy kitchen? And how do we expect boys to grow into men, who respect the rights of women, and work towards an equal society, when toy kitchens and household goods are in the Girls Department?

Kids mirror the behaviour they see at home, and they learn by playing. Giving them access to toys and games that present girls as their equal, means that boys will just assume that this is the way things are.

A recent study showed that girls whose fathers did their share of housework were more ambitious in their school and career choices, than girls who watched their mother do all the work.

Gender-neutral toys, games and product are good for boys and girls, because they don’t preinstall ideas into their head, about what men or women are good at, or should be doing. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ban pink toys. Lets give kids the choice of all the colours, not just the pink and purple ones.

 

Jump! Mag is an online magazine for kids, which aims to inspire, educate and entertain in a safe and girl-positive environment [@JumpMag]

 

 

To Be a Girl by Bungling Housewife

Baby-Girl-In-Garden

What does it really mean to be a girl? Does our society demand too much of them? Or too little (yeah right)? Is there really such a thing as being too ‘girly’ or not being girly enough?

Being a girl these days isn’t too easy. Everyone seems to have their own pet ideas about what makes a girl or what a girl should or should not do. Right from the time a girl is born, she’s seen as an object, a ‘doll’ to be dressed up, to be made ‘pretty’. As she grows older, this idea is reinforced again and again and again: a girls job is to look ‘nice’, to stay well groomed, to wear nice clothes and above all else, to always match her purse to her shoes. As she grows older, this list of what a girl needs to be is added to, little by little. A girl needs to learn how to cook, she needs to be neat and be capable of multitasking. A girl should always have time for her appearance, no matter how busy she is. A girl should always be careful not to darken her complexion or put on any excess weight. A girl should be capable to keeping her house neat as a pin without any help. A girl needs to always guard her ‘reputation’ and her modesty. Nice girls don’t hang out with friends too often, they stay home with the family. If, God forbid, anything bad does happen, it is somehow always the girl’s fault for just not being careful enough.

It is the girl who needs to compromise in her relationships, to always put others happiness above her own. It is a girl’s job to keep her husband happy and her children clean, fed and well-behaved. A successful girl will marry, keep house, cook, clean, raise her children, manage the household, and all while balanced precariously on pretty heels beneath a pretty dress. Boys will be boys, their sins (no matter how big or small) forgivable by those that love them and by society at large but girls can never have that option. A girl must always be perfect because any mistake she may make will haunt her for the rest of her life. A boy will get multiple second chances but a girl, she will get only the one chance and so she better make the best of it.

Society expects a lot from girls, but it’s not the high expectations that break a girl, it’s the lack of appreciation it implies. All this is your duty ladies, so of course you have no choice in the matter so why should we appreciate you? What do you want, a medal?

Yes. A medal would be nice. But short of that, at least a good word here and there won’t kill you. Girls are the mothers of all nations and all families and they are stronger than any boy can ever hope to be. It won’t kill you to appreciate them from time to time.

 

Bungling Housewife: I’m an Anthropologist by training, a housewife by choice, a voracious reader, a lover of fantasy fiction and Sci-Fi, a new mommy, an observer of human nature, a closet optimist and a cupcake enthusiast. I write about all of the above and anything that might strike my fancy :)

The science behind sex differences is still in dispute

Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Borgia who blogs occasionally about feminism, rape culture and games [@feministborgia].

In November 2013 a study was published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA’ (link here for those interested http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/27/1316909110, the full paper will be available on open access in May 2014) titled, ‘Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain’. Now if you don’t know what a connectome is, don’t worry, the term was only coined in around 2005. It refers to a map of neural connections in the brain, and it exists as a way of trying to connect the physical structure of the brain with its function (if you are interested there is more on this here  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectome). Fancy new terminology aside, the purpose of the study was to measure structural connections within the brains of just below 1000 young people (aged 8 to 22) and their results showed some interesting differences. Using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (an MRI technique that measures the restricted diffusion of water) they found that after the age of 13 there were significant differences in how the brains of men and women were connected. In the study men’s brains were found to connect more within a given hemisphere. and women’s had great cross connectivity (seen below the connectome maps published, showing the male brain in blue and the female brain in orange:
Image

As you can see, the male brain shows more longitudal connections whilst the female brains shows more transverse connections.
The abstract for the study states, ‘the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes’, having earlier noted that ‘Males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills’.

The publication of this paper resulted in a number of excitable and fairly familiar newspaper headlines.
The Telegraph announced boldly ‘Brains of men and women are poles apart’, (demonstrating once and for all that broadsheets aren’t immune to headline puns) telling us that women’s brains are set up to have better memories (for anniversaries!) and gauge social situations better while men’s brains coordinate their actions with their senses, so can navigate better (not to mention be better at parking cars).

The Independent declared these differences, ‘could explain why men are ‘better at map reading”.
The Belfast Telegraph gets the prize for the best reporting on this, by first reminding us that ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ before going on to declare that the study has shown ‘men and women’s brains are wired in completely different ways, as if they were species from different planets.’

With the possible exception of the Belfast Telegraph (who seem to have got themselves hopelessly overexcited), you can’t place too much fault on the reporting here. It is a clear cut case of ‘science says’, and in this case has the benefits of a peer reviewed journal to back it up. The study itself made reference to differences in male and female behaviours, stating that men have better ‘motor and spacial abilities’ whereas women show, ‘superior memory and social cognition’. Unfortunately, whilst this paper may make that claim, the preceding study (of which the participants of this study were a subset) does not back that up (abstract here http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/neu/26/2/251/). Of the 26 behavioural measures made for comparison (for example executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition), 11 showed sex differences that were non existent, or as small as 53:47 (the expected sex outperforming the opposite only 53% of the time), Even in those areas where the differences are meant to be the greatest (spatial or social awareness) the performance difference was only 60:40-a measurable and noticeable difference for sure, but hardly enough to declare difference species.

My problem is not with this study or with their results, but rather with the way the conclusions have been drawn, and with the extrapolations. They have shown interesting differences in how men’s and women’s brains connect with themselves, but then rather than taking any further interesting steps, drilling down further into the data, they have attached some male/female stereotypes and called it job done. One of the authors has even suggested that the ‘hard wired’ differences found could explain the ‘gut feelings’ that women demonstrate more than men, and which makes them good mothers (‘intuition’ and ‘mothering’, or indeed ‘nurturing’ was not in fact measured in this study).

There could be other reasons than ‘men are better at map reading’ for the differences observed. Men’s brains are frequently bigger than women’s brains, the difference in the wiring could be due to physical necessity (there are also studies on this).

Then there’s the most interesting part of the study that has been the least discussed: the structural differences are not observed in a significant manner until after age 13. And we have to ask ourselves why. One of the proposed explanations is that this is the approximate average age for the development of secondary sexual characteristics. There are massive changes in the body, hormones flooding everything, the logic seems to be that the brain changes at this time too. However there is a better explanation, and one less routed in speculation. See, there’s this thing called neuroplasticity. It refers to the changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour or environment. Literally as you learn, your brain changes shape. Then we have to bear in mind that gender as a social construct is learned. It is taught. Little girls aren’t born liking pink. They are taught that girls like pink, and that they are a girl, therefore they then like pink. You put those two things together and what you end up with is the possibility that, rather than being innate, related to the release of hormones at puberty, the structural differences in the brains are programmed in by telling girls that boys are boisterous and girls play nice, that boys are good at maths and girls are caring, that boys build things and girls decorate them. But no mention is made in the study of any consideration of gendered activities in their subjects, or indeed any activities that may (and in fact do) influence how our brains are wired.

If you take this into account, the claim that ‘sex differences are hard wired’ seems a little less proven than it was before.

I am very fond of saying ‘peer reviewed journal or it didn’t happen’. But we have to be able to treat even these studies critically. Their data may be fixed and immutable (tho that is not always the case) but the conclusions have more room for movement. And the people making those conclusions are not immune from sexism.

The study may have shown that men and women’s brains connect differently. But it hasn’t shown why. And it hasn’t shown that the differences are innate. It has shown they are learned. ‘Men and women are taught to be different’ is a less interesting conclusions perhaps, but it is a more truthful one.

 

Post script: If you are interested in this subject, may I recommend the very excellent Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Her article on this study was also very useful to me https://theconversation.com/new-insights-into-gendered-brain-wiring-or-a-perfect-case-study-in-neurosexism-21083

 

Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Borgia who blogs occasionally about feminism, rape culture and games [@feministborgia].

 

See also: Extra, Extra! Scientists Misunderstand their own Research by @Marstrina

Never Trust a Jellyfish

Jen Farrant

Finn Mackay

Eleanor T. Higgs

Erringness in perfection class

Feimineach