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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Historically, most anarchafeminists have explicitly rejected marriage as a tool of control by the state and/or church, inherently reinforcing the patriarchy. In the early 20th century, this position was known in the Anglophone West as ‘Free Love’ and didn’t necessarily imply anything about the relationship structures of the people involved, although many did engage in what we would now call polyamorous relationships. ‘Free Love’ as a term underwent a semantic shift as a result of its adoption by 1960s counterculture movements, in which incarnation it has been roundly (and rightly) critiqued by feminists. More recently, the word ‘monogamy’ has also undergone a semantic shift, which I argue is actually detrimental to our political understanding of marriage and relationships.[1]

The word ‘monogamous’, taken literally, does not mean ‘having a romantic relationship with only one other person’. It means ‘being married to only one other person’. Despite the semantic shift towards the former that has happened over the past few decades, I argue that we should return to using the word ‘monogamous’ in its literal sense – not on etymological grounds, but on political ones. That is, we should use ‘monogamous’ only to mean the state of being married to precisely one other person (or seeking or being oriented toward such a state).

Immediately, we see that this has two potentially counter-intuitive effects. (more…)

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Hello Rapists,

“Who, me?” I hear you saying, “Why, I’m not a rapist! I never even lurk in bushes, let alone burst forth from them to attack lady passers-by!”

Ok, let me stop you right there. While stranger-attack rapes do happen, stranger-rape actually falls outside the scope of this letter. (Sorry, not sorry, stranger-rapists.) So, too, for different reasons, does the much more common occurrence of partner-rape. No, I want to talk about what’s often referred to as “date rape”. That’s when you go on a date with someone, and then rather than going through the normal routines of consensual making out and maybe sex or whatever, you just go ahead and sexually assault them.

Now, obviously, this is reprehensible. I’m sure you know this, and if you’re not sure whether or not this is something you have done or make a habit of, there are plenty of resources out there that will explain sexual consent to you. However, much as it pains me to do so, I want to just lay aside morality for a moment here. Various psych- and sociological studies have shown that there are several people among you who most certainly do make a habit of this — that you’ll even generally admit to doing it, so long as the words ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ are avoided in asking you about it. So, as a purely pragmatic intervention, I want to talk to you on (what I assume are) your own terms: sex. Sexy, sexy, sex, and how to get more of it. So, let’s all acknowledge this, loud and clear:

EVEN IF YOUR ONLY GOAL IN LIFE IS TO INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF SEX YOU HAVE, RAPE IS STILL A BAD STRATEGY.

See, every time you interact with someone, that interaction happens at a particular time. That time will be succeeded by future instances of time, in which your rape victim, if you have created one, will remember what you have done (or remember the suspicious blank in their memory following other things you have done). This memory will then colour their future interactions with you. That is, people treat you differently based on how you have treated them in the past. This shit is really not that difficult.

It’s a reasonable assumption that, if someone finds you sexy and charming enough to want to put themselves in a sexual situation with you, they’re going to want to do that again in the future, if you treat them well in this one. If you are attentive and caring and interested in their pleasure as well as your own, then odds are (NB: not necessarily, but it’s pretty likely) that they’ll want to have sexytimes with you again. Great! Net gain of sex for you! But if you just go ahead and ignore their wants and needs and boundaries — if you pressure them, if you plead and wheedle at them, if you just ignore their hesitations or demurrals or outright refusals — then HELL NO are they going to want to have sex with you again! Not only that, they may even tell other people about what you’ve done, and then none of those people are going to want to sleep with you either. NET LOSS OF SEX FOR YOU. EPIC FAIL.

So please, for the love of sex, just stop fucking raping people. Ever. 

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I wrote in Part 1 about how I came to see myself as agender, and the theoretical frameworks by which I understand that term. This post will deal with the intersections of privilege and oppression that come with trying to navigate such an identity as a person who is perceived as unambiguously female.

I. Oppression

Once, in the midst of an emotional confrontation, someone accused me of using “male-like privilege” to shut him(!) down in our argument, reasoning that my “rational mode of speaking” was a typically masculine-identified way of communicating that is often used to try to negate or discount the input of the interlocutor as “too emotional”. I pointed out that, a) the dynamic he was describing is one wherein someone pretends that it is somehow “reasonable” or “logical” to discount feelings, which I was not doing; but moreover, b) as a woman, I am structurally incapable of accessing male (or, presumably, “male-like”) privilege anyway. “But,” he said, responding to the latter, “You’re not really a woman, though, are you?”

This was fairly early on in my process of gender-questioning, and he was one of the few people I had spoken to at length about my thoughts that I might actually be agender. To have this thrown back at me as a reason to discount my experience of structural oppression as a woman was jarring, to say the least.

*

In common with most(?) anarchists and other radical socialists, I view gender as a class structure. That is, it is a hierarchical system whereby men are privileged, as a class, and women are oppressed, as a class. This is not a definitive description — it is not the case that what it is to be a man or woman is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender in society. However, it is certainly the case that, contingently though it may be, part of what it means to be a man or woman at this particular time and place in history is to be part of the structurally privileged or oppressed gender groups, respectively.

However, this particular axis of oppression has little, if anything, to do with its object’s gender identity. Rather, it is based on how they are perceived by those around them. I am not subject to misogyny based on my identity as a woman, but because people see me as a woman, regardless of how I see myself. As such, I find it useful, as a point for organising around issues specific to the oppression of women, to continue to identify as one.

This is something I’m still thinking through. I worry that by failing to take up a more explicitly non-binary gender identity, I am contributing to the overall invisibility of gender minorities. On the other hand, I worry that by expressing a non-binary gender identity when my actual gender identity is more “IDGAF, woman-I-guess” than “definitely neither man nor woman”, I would simply be appropriating an identity that isn’t rightfully mine (a fear, I note, remarkably similar to the rather common fear among bisexual women that someone is going to come and take our queer cards away if we end up in exclusive or primary relationships with men).

II. Privilege

The thing is, though, whether or not I call myself cisgender, I have quite a lot of cis privilege.

Namely, precisely because I am agender in such a default and uncaring way, it doesn’t actually cost me anything to simply continue to identify as a woman in a default sort of way. Yes, I may have awkward and ridiculous conversations like the one recounted above (an accusation so absurd that the person later denied even having made it). But, for the most part, I am able to pontificate about gender identity mostly as an abstract exercise. All of this has very little effect on the way I present myself to the world, or on how my gender is (usually) read by other people. I may feel like I’m “in drag” if I dress up all femme as much as if I dress in very masculine-signified clothing, but (at least for me) that amounts to little more than a trifling psychological quirk. And sure, I am subject to the same oppositional-sexist policing of my gender presentation as anyone else — but no more so than many unambiguously cisgendered people, and certainly less than some.

I have heard several people express the opinion that ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are not a spectrum, but a strict binary: that everyone who is not trans is cis, and everyone who is not cis is trans. I don’t know whether they are a ‘spectrum’ as such, but I do know this: nature abhors a strict binary system. The entirety of biological science is filled with almosts and admixtures and grey areas, and I don’t see why human gender, being either a biological construct, a social construct made by gooey biological creatures, or some mixture of the two, should be any different.

As such, I tend to identify as ‘cisgender’ or not based largely on the circumstances, and on who’s asking. That is, if someone is just wanting to catalogue the various sorts of gender identities people might have, I’ll raise my hand as genderqueer. However, when it comes to talking about trans oppression, I feel like I would be remiss not to identify myself as cis in terms of privilege.

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Every so often, you come across one of those ideas that crystallizes everything. That slots into your mind like a perfect tetris block, and suddenly everything is clear.

For me, the most recent of these was reading Julia Serano’s excellent book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. There’s much in there that I would love to discuss at length — such as the idea, one that I share, that much of what gets called ‘homophobia’ is in fact a species of misogyny — but for the sake of tidiness, I’ll stick to just one concept. Namely, Serano’s hypothesis that there exists some sort of ingrained, inherent and potentially immutable ‘internal gender’ in every person.

She illustrates this, she says, by asking workshop participants what amount of money it would take for them to choose to transition, to live the rest of their lives as another gender to their own. For most people, apparently, no amount of money seems worth this; or, even if they think they’d do it for some large amount of cash, simply working through the thought experiment leads them to realise that, even if they were to live as another gender, they would still feel that they were ‘really’ their own gender, all along, ‘on the inside’. But my only thought was, “Hell, I’d do it. I don’t want to have invasive surgery, or go through the hassle of re-teaching myself how to walk, move, and interact, but if you could somehow magic me into maleness, I’d do it for a pittance. I’d do it for free, even, if I had some reason to.”

Yet, at the same time, I have no particular desire to, either. This, then, was the revelation: if there is such a thing as an ‘internal gender’, I don’t think I have one. Note, please, that this is different from claiming that no such thing exists. There are children who will never develop wisdom teeth as adults; but that does not mean that these teeth are not lurking inside the jaws of most children and teenagers, waiting to emerge as they become adults.

Furthermore, the reason this felt like such a revelation to me is that I had had reason to think, for some time, that my conception of my gender is very different from most of my peers’. The inquiry began with someone’s offhand suggestion that perhaps all these TERFs, who insist on denying trans women’s experiences of their genders, are actually agender. I believe this was meant, in the context, as a (deeply problematic!) joke, but as a suggestion I thought it might have some explanatory power. That that’s why they’re so insistent on [oddly restrictively applied] social-constructivist theories of gender: because they’ve only ever understood their own gender as an arbitrary category imposed on them by society, and cannot fathom someone feeling differently — even to the point of insisting that those who say they do are somehow ‘deluded’, rather than accepting that other people may have different phenomenological experiences of their own genders.

I had never considered myself as ‘agender’ prior to these conversations, because everyone I’ve known who has identified as agender has expressed, very strongly, that they felt themselves to be neither male nor female. They’ve had a strong sense of a truth-value gap, as it were, in terms of their gender. (And can be contrasted, incidentally, with other sorts of gender-queerness, such as feeling like one is both genders, or in-between, or a third gender.) But I never felt any of those things. I just didn’t care. People told me I was a woman, and I believed them because the way they treated me was consistent with my understanding of that category. I never questioned the feeling of arbitrariness, because I naively assumed that other people experienced their own genders in the same way.

I began polling my friends about their own experiences of their genders, and found that, indeed, most of those who identified as one of the two primary binary genders felt like it had some inherent quality, which I would later be able to describe with Serano’s concept of an ‘internal gender’. Not all, though. In fact, it seems that my own feeling of simply not having an internal gender might be rather common, at least in the sense of being a trait shared by some significant minority of people, and not a special snowflake condition unique to my own psyche.

Coming up in Part 2: Why I choose, nevertheless, to identify as a woman, despite evidently falling somewhere within the category of genderqueer.

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It’s been a week of twitterstorms for me. Or, to paraphrase some dude on Twitter, a fantastic week for the aggrieved white male Leninist academic – and by extension, for those who argue for the need for intersectional critiques within leftist political movements, as these two essays make our point quite (in)admirably.

First, Mark Fisher posted this interminably long and rambling essay bemoaning the practice of leftists calling out other leftists for their bigotry on social media, via the strained and incoherent quasi-Engelian metaphor of a “vampire’s castle“, which is apparently where all the intersectionalists live and practice our evil, movement-draining bourgeois liberalism. A few days later, Ross Wolfe posted up this essay by James Heartfield as a sort of continuation/response, more explicitly addressing the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and why it is oh-so-wrong and divisive.

The thing is, both Fisher and Heartfield are committing a (deeply ironic) category error when they attack intersectionality and its expressions as being “draining” or “divisive”. Intersectionality, like the discourses of privilege that gave rise to its articulation, can actually be summarised in a few very basic principles:

1. The dominant society, while it privileges a very small group of people, oppresses the rest of us in several different ways – e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

2. People who are oppressed along one axis can still be privileged in others. I say ‘can still be’, but it seems likely that in actuality every single person has some areas of privilege in their lives, and that almost every person (barring only a subsection of the set of straight white rich cis-male able-bodied Westerners) also has some areas of oppression.

3. Even people who are active in the fight against one or more axes of oppression (including, for instance, all self-proclaimed lefties) can still have blind spots from their own areas of privilege, can still be bigots.

That last point includes even those who are within the relevant oppressed groups themselves. Internalised misogyny is A Thing. Internalised racism is A Thing. This shit is structural, y’know? You can’t grow up in a culture steeped in white supremacy, patriarchy, neoliberalism, etc., without that colouring the way you view the world. None of us can. So the point is to work with each other to root out those toxic patterns and build something better in their place.

We can’t do that, though, if every time someone calls out a comrade for their racism, their misogyny, their tranphobia, their ablism (etc.), they get told to shut up because pointing out bigotry “divides the movement”. That silencing tactic is so old, and I was really starting to think that we – the broad left – were finally starting to get over it. Probably because I live in an insular liberal vampire castle on twitter, sucking the living labour out of the righteous working class movement.

*sigh*

Okay. About liberalism. (more…)

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Or: (Incomplete) List of Words and Phrases that Piss Me the Fuck Off

1. “In her own right”

Originally a term denoting an aristocratic woman’s titles as inherited through her parents rather than her husband, this is a phrase you’ll see again and again in biographies and obituaries. Often it will appear as an aside in the biographies of famous men, announcing that their wives (or mothers, sisters, etc.) had also engaged in the activity that made them famous — and this is bad enough. But it also appears with an alarming frequency in the biographies or (especially) obituaries of women who’ve done important things.

That last qualifier is of course a bit redundant, since the only women who usually get biographies or lengthy obituaries written of them in the first place are the ones who’ve done important things, or are famous (or infamous). But this is precisely the point. Many such women were associated in some way, such as marriage, with men who were also famous and/or did important things. Many, because of sexism, were totally overshadowed by said men, or are less well-remembered, and so their biographers and obituarists feel they must assert the importance of the remembered woman’s works.

The problem is that “in her own right”, by its very assertiveness, calls into question the ability (or, indeed, even the right) of the discussed woman to do the things or fill the role that she did. This is surely the opposite of what most biographers mean to be denoting with it, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the origins of the phrase: aristocratic women in Europe usually did not inherit titles, except where they inconveniently lacked brothers or close-enough male cousins to take them instead. For a woman to hold a title in her own right was exceptional, remarkable, very much not the norm. To use this phrase of a woman is therefore to define her in terms of her husband (or potential husband), and not — as is supposedly the point — in her own right.

2. “Vagina”

My objections to this word are remarkably similar to the above. Latin for ‘sheath’, it inherently defines itself in terms of the penis (or, at the very least, phallus). A sheath is, after all, only even meaningful as a thing in its property of covering or being made or intended to cover or surround some other thing.

3. “Cunt”

CUNT. Not for its own sake — ‘cunt’ is a wonderful word — but because of all the bullshit around it. Etymologically, cunt is actually very much the best word for female genitalia, since (as far as I know) it is the only word that originally and always meant just that, with its other senses derived from its sense as ‘genitalia’, rather than the other way around. It is also, as recently pointed out to me by Lucy, one of the only words whose referent both actually is and is commonly understood to be the whole thing, rather than just the vulva, the vagina, or pubic hair. (‘Vagina’, of course, is popularly used, and understood, as a synecdoche for the whole of the female genital system, but that is wrong. Properly speaking, it only refers to the sheathy bit.)

Why, then, are so many people offended by this perfectly cromulent word? My theory is that it is in fact because of its above-mentioned original and continuous referent of ‘female genitalia’. Long before anyone started raising “feminist” objections to its use in reference to ‘a woman’, delicate 18th- and 19th-Century writers and even lexicographers were replacing it with “the monosyllable”, and the long lists of often quite circuitous slang terms for it speak very strongly of our collective cultural discomfort with cunts-qua-body-parts, as much or more than of ‘cunt’-qua-word-for-one.

I do understand the feminist objections to using this word as an insult. I do. Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang reportedly defines ‘cunt’, in its insulting sense, as “women considered as nothing more than a receptacle for the penis”, which is indeed enormously offensive (see: ‘vagina’). But I’m not sure that most or even many people who use ‘cunt’ as an insult mean it in that precise a sense. ‘Cunt’ when one simply means ‘of or like female genitalia’ (or even ‘of or like a woman’), and thus deployed with intent to wound, is also kind of offensive, sure — but it is no more offensive than ‘pussy’ used in the same way. ‘Cunt’ is also an all-purpose insult along the same lines as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’, and while I do wish that our society were not so configured that words for genitalia were considered appropriate swear words, I fully defend our right to use them, and I’m not going to get angry about ‘cunt’ used as a generalized swear word until ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ have also fallen out of use.

In any case, what really frosts my cunt about all the supposedly feminist hoo-ha over ‘cunt’ is that the same people who get so offended on behalf of women’s poor little lady-feelings about our lady-bits seem perfectly okay with the use of words like

4. “Hysterical”

Not in the sense of ‘very, very funny’* but as in ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘characterized by hysteria‘, this is the most offensive word in the English language — or at least the most offensive that isn’t regularly labelled in dictionaries as a ‘slur’.

Although the wikipedia entry on ‘Female Hysteria‘ contains a carefully placed disclaimer that it should not be confused with the undifferentiated ‘Hysteria’, its own section on the history of the term gives the lie to that disclaimer. ‘Hysteria’, from the Greek term of the same usage meaning literally ‘suffering in the womb’, is an inherently gendered word. For most of its history, the term ‘female hysteria’ would have been a redundancy, because ‘hysteria’ was a disease of women. Women and their strange, dangerous, uncontrollable emotions. Even when applied to men, it was (and, let’s be honest, still basically is) a feminizing term; to accuse a man of being hysterical is to accuse him of being ‘like a woman’ — just as to accuse a woman of being hysterical is to accuse her of being ‘like a woman’. The very, very worst thing of all.

 

* The ‘very, very funny’ sense is of course related — it means ‘so funny as to make a person laugh as though hysterical’, only so truncated that the adjective becomes attached to the object of the emotion rather than its subject, thus making it so tangential that to be offended by its etymology would be a bit much, even for me.

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Having listened to Maddy Prior & June Tabor’s album ‘Silly Sisters’ several times at work the other day, I found myself with their version of Geordie stuck in my head — only, annoyingly, I couldn’t remember all the words, so had just snippets. Thinking to exorcise it through fuller knowledge, I opened up a songbook, Rise Up Singing, that I knew to have a version of it, to scan the lyrics.

Now, I am no stranger to folk music; I’m well aware that there are about a bajillion versions of every song, especially older ones, and that they vary considerably in both words and music. This, however, was a broader divergence than I ever would have expected. The very story changes dramatically! The basic story of a man called Geordie being condemned, and then his wife coming to beg for his life is the same, but they diverge in almost evey other aspect. And I know they are supposedly the same song, as well, since the songbook lists the ‘Silly Sisters’ album as an example recording!

In Prior & Tabor’s (which turned out to be this version, originally transcribed by Robert Burns), Geordie was a nobleman framed for the murder of another. His lady rides to court and is told his life will be spared if she collects a ginormous ransom, which she does, and so buys his freedom. In the Rise Up Singing version — as in most other, especially English versions, it turns out — Geordie is a poacher, and when his wife comes to beg for his freedom, she is turned away, and he dies. Talk about alternate endings!

A musician, identified only as ‘Ian’ in this Mudcat thread describes his own recording of the song as “an English song about a disproportionate punishment for a crime which evolved from a Scottish song about a frame-up”. The Scottish versions do seem to generally pre-date the English ones (though they also seem to have become less common), and I guess changing the condemned man to reflect a common-ish crime in your area, for which the punishment is widely seen as vastly unjust, does make a sort of sense. As, given the former, does having him actually die rather than get ransomed at the last minute. But at this point, is it even still the same song? Could there have been some other English song (or several) that got morphed into this one because the tune was catchy and the story was distilled and familiar?

Oddly, this recording by Ewan MacColl seems to combine elements of several versions, but seems mostly drawn from this one, known as Gight’s Ladye. Geordie’s wife is still a noblewoman of some sort, but Geordie’s crime is poaching. She isn’t turned away out of hand, though, and goes through with the begging for ransom money as in the other Scottish versions. However, it seems to me that her success in this is left ambiguous while the narrator is distracted by telling the tale of her verbal harrassment by a bawdy lord. Though, granted, my impression of ambiguity could merely be from an inferior understanding of Scots; it’s certainly not ambiguous in the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version given on Mudcat. But why this “Bog o’ Gight” stuff? Well, a little googling proved illuminating: ‘Bog-Of-Gight’ is an old name for Gordon Castle, and the earliest historical event to be associated with this song/set of songs was the story of a George Gordon, who would have been lord of said castle at the time — although the actual events of his life, at least as given on Wikipedia, don’t quite line up with the song, and they CERTAINLY don’t line up with the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version, though at a stretch they could be described by Burns’ ‘Geordie’.

So what is going on here? It seems unlikely that an earl — who’d have his own hunting preserves, after all — would be brought up for poaching. Yet the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version preserves an awful lot of specific names and places, far more than Burns’ ‘Geordie’. Could the crime have been changed to make the song more populist in one area, while in another the events were recorded more faithfully even as the names all dropped away? It’s nearly impossible to tell. Though for those who feel like making minute comparisons between versions (woefully void of any information about where or when or how they were collected), it turns out Wiki has transcriptions of all of Child’s collections.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts on the Burns/Child A version. In it, Geordie is framed (or blamed for the death, anyway, regardless of guilt), and his lady, upon receiving the news of his captivity, rushes to Edinburgh with all of her men. Later on, after she’s made her tearful case to the king, but before the aged lord suggests a fine instead of death, we get this verse, which on first listen seems to break the pattern of the story considerably:

The Gordons cam and the Gordons ran,
And they were stark and steady;
And ay the word amang them a’
Was, Gordons keep you ready.

Then we see the king’s advisor suggesting that a fine might be the wiser course of action. Because this lady brought a freaking army with her to “beg” for her dearie’s life. Conclusion: the ‘fairest flower o’ woman-kind’ is a lot more badass than you might expect.

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