A self-fulfilling prophecy

I recently read a comment on a this really interesting piece by Ally Fogg, which argued that intersectionality is not an ‘intellectually sound’ concept and that there is no basis for it in academia.

This is the most ironic comment in the history of comments.

The concept ‘intersectionality’ originated outside of the academy. The concept came from Black feminists, particularly groups like the Combahee River Collective, whose statement is a cornerstone of intersectional feminism. From roots outside of academia, it planted itself firmly at the heart of disciplines like Black feminist and critical race studies.  The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an academic. It’s at the heart of  ‘Black Feminist Thought,’ Patricia Hill Collins, an academic. It’s what bell hooks, an (you guessed it!) academic, wrote about so accessibly and powerfully.

Black feminist academics were writing about intersectionality before most of us were out of nappies.

If you believe intersectionality is not ‘intellectually sound,’ and you believe it is a new fangled word being shoehorned into the national lexicon by a bunch of over-privileged Gender Studies students, you are demonstrating the widespread silencing of Black feminist contributions to the academy, and to the movement as a whole.

Let’s be clear: intersectionality is a lived experience. It is the idea that people can experience different forms of interlinking oppression all at the same time. As a sociologist, that makes it ‘intellectually sound’ in my book.

Lessons to be learned:

a) something shouldn’t have to be embedded into the academy for you to accept that people live it every day

b) loudly explaining that intersectionality is not intellectually sound – and thereby ignoring the contribution of Black feminists to the academy – is demonstrating the need for intersectional thinking and activism.  The more you protest intersectionality isn’t a thing, the more it is definitely a thing.

c) anyone arrogant enough to proclaim that anything is not ‘intellectually sound’ should be prepared to have their ass handed to them, unless they can demonstrate they have dedicated their academic career to understanding this one concept and have concluded, after a great deal of analysis, that said concept isn’t ‘intellectually sound.’

Edited to add: A commenter kindly pointed out to me that Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined ‘intersectionality, so I updated the third paragraph to make that clear. I also added bell hook, cos, you know, bell goddam hooks!


“Stop squabbling, ladies”

There is a constant stream of articles from various online sources – newspapers, blogs, periodicals – which argue along these lines: Feminism’s main problem right now is in-fighting. We’re too busy firing shots at one another and getting ourselves worked up about the latest Twitter spat that we’re forgetting the Real Enemy. The Real Enemy is watching our catfights, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together in glee, and maybe hoping we’ll all have a pillow fight in our underwear. He is Patriarchy, and we are letting him win.

That’s bollocks.

When it’s pointed out how bollocks that argument is (I can have a Twitter spat and still have a hand free to fight the Patriarchy, easy), then some feminists themselves weigh in with a bit of yellow-bellied kow-towery. “We are a bit aggressive sometimes,” they wheedle. “You lot really were nasty to Caitlin Moran,” they pout. “You’re making feminism look more elitist than the Bullingdon Club. You’re discouraging dissent and punishing those who disagree,” they wail.

That’s also bollocks.

Here’s the deal with almost any political movement on the planet, which I’ll illustrate by invoking the (universal, I’m sure) metaphor of a student political group meeting. I’ll dub them Student Political Group. Here’s how it goes: You have some unifying goals, otherwise you wouldn’t all be at the meeting. You have lots of other stuff you wildly disagree on, and that’s cool. You stick with the people you agree with, but have useful debate and healthy disagreement with others. But then there’s always someone careering around the room, interjecting every five minutes with some non sequitur about Isreal and Palestine, making a nuisance of themselves, and saying things like, “so what if Julian Assange had sex with her whilst she was sleeping, it’s not rape-rape!”

This person needs to be dealt with, because they are identifying as a member of Student Political Group, they keep writing their vile views in the student newspaper because their mate’s the editor, and they are making everyone ashamed to be associated with them. They are actively destroying the useful work Student Political Group are trying to do, because they are a complete and utter knob.

So, you ask them to leave, or write a response to their article in Student Newspaper, or continually have explosive, derailing arguments about why exactly it is white people don’t use the n-word. And people, most of whom aren’t even involved with Student Political Group, accuse you of crushing dissent like a big hairy Feminazi.

Here’s another little truism: if you, a Famous Person, say sexist/racist/transphobic shit on Twitter, you may as well be shouting it through a loud-hailer into a crowd of millions. People will shout back. And, as with most crowds of people, 50% of that shouting will actually be constructive and attempting to open debate, 25% will be people shouting “I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU, YOU CAN DO NO WRONG,” 15% will be absolute knobs and bullies who just want to humiliate and threaten you, and 10% will be people saying “What the fuck? What did I miss? Why are we shouting? WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?” But in the end, it all just sounds like shouting to you, the Famous Person who shouted through the loud-hailer in the first place.  Yes, I agree that nobody should be bullying, slanderous, threatening or abusive just because you don’t like something that Famous Person said. But I also think that you will get that knobbish 10% who will be abusive and threatening no matter what subject you’ve shouted about down that loud-hailer. You don’t stamp them out by saying, “stop arguing on Twitter.” They are knobs. They won’t listen.

Let’s apply all of this useful advice (which I’m doling out for free, you lucky things) to our favourite whipping-girl of the moment, the feminist movement. We can’t police one anothers’ identities  by saying that someone can’t identify as a feminist because they slut-shame, ignore the experiences of non-white people, or engage in hate speech against trans people. The reason that we can’t say that is because no one has a monopoly on what the label ‘feminist’ means. However, we can self-critique. We can self-improve. We can say, “you might call yourself a feminist, but that slut-shaming article you just wrote plays into strong misogynist ideas about women, and that’s not cool.” We can say, “Banning trans women from your women-only event means you have a strict idea about what a woman is, and as a fellow feminist I’m not down with that.” We can say, “I respect that we have differing views on sex work, but when you reduce sex workers to caricatures you’re engaging in some really oppressive language, and I don’t find that fits with your other feminist beliefs.”

Here’s another nugget of truth. Suggesting feminists argue too much amongst themselves plays into the hands of misogynists. Feminists don’t have an obligation to be nice and polite to one another, or anyone else; we have only the obligation that everyone in the world has, that of being a Decent Human Being. If you suggest that we all need to calm down, hug it out, and face the world with a sisterly smile, you’re the one who can’t tolerate dissent.

It is a concern if feminist debates turn people away from the movement. I have hope, however, which I draw from my own experience. When I first encountered feminism, I read some books, a blog post or two, and went along to a couple of meetings. Slowly but surely, I developed an idea of what type of feminist I was, and only then began to follow debates online, and formed opinions on them. I did not get thrown into the Twitterpit to fend for myself as feminists duelled around me, flinging words like ‘intersectionality,’ ‘kyriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’ around. I’m not sure why people imagine that’s the way new feminists are being introduced into the movement, as if the only feminist activity around is centered on a small collection of blogs and Twitter spats.

So go forth, argue amongst yourselves, and never stop getting worked up about the latest Moran faux-pas. Because you’re not the carrying the future of the movement on your shoulders, you’re not setting a bad example; you’re thinking critically and contributing to a continually adapting feminist discourse.

Just try not to be a knob about it, OK?

When Naomi Wolf’s Vagina came to town

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

Naomi Wolf bounced onto the stage of the Brighton Dome’s studio on Friday night with a wide grin, expressing her excitement at being in Brighton “with such cool people.” She wants to talk to us about her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, warning us: “I’m still getting used to talking about such personal things in public. So if I blush or take my time, bear with me!”

That’s the problem with Vagina: it’s just a little too intimate, a little too personal, and, going by the reaction of many feminists to the book, not political enough. Unlike many of her younger contemporaries, Wolf has not learnt an important lesson from the history of the movement: extrapolating the ‘female experience’ from one white, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy woman is an exercise in political blindness. The first section of her book (and most of her talk on Friday night) boils down to this: her orgasms are pretty good. For a while they weren’t so good any more, and her doctor discovered her pelvic nerve was being compressed by her spine. Now she’s all better, and after reading up on neuroscience, she wants to tell us all about the profound ‘brain-vagina connection’ that makes the vagina the ‘centre of the self.’ Wolf is a firm believer that really great orgasms are essential to women’s emancipation, because dopamine, a neurochemical involved with reward, is a “feminist chemical” produced during orgasm.

Unfortunately, the neuroscience Wolf enthuses about may not be as conclusive as she believes, as this collation of neuroscientists’ responses to her talk demonstrates. Wolf is not an expert, and neuroscientists are eager to point out the dangers of making linear cause and effect relationships between a neurochemical and a specific emotion (like ‘dopamine produces assertiveness’). Quite apart from that, Wolf’s argument hinges on the reader accepting phrases like ‘the feminine soul,’ ‘the Goddess array,’ and ‘the Universal and Divine Feminine,’ language which is interspersed throughout the book but which she pointedly avoided during her talk in Brighton, saying “I guess words like that sound odd to British ears.”

Not just British ears; I think the French would have something to say about that too. Simone de Beauvoir famously explored in The Second Sex the way that the myth of the ‘eternal feminine’ serves to undermine and subjugate women, who are portrayed in a male-dominated world as ‘Other,’ strange and exciting, exotic creatures with complex sexual desires and unfathomable motivations. Vagina is ostensibly an attempt to de-mystify women’s bodies and their sexual lives, but serves only to play into the patriarchal constructs Beauvoir identified decades ago.

As well as this explicit language, Wolf also tends to display her attitude in the adjectives she uses to describe the female – ‘lovely’ comes up far too often, as does ‘magical,’ and although ‘delicious’ only appeared once it did make me hiccup in shock – in stark comparison to her descriptions of the male orgasm, which is ‘linear,’ their wiring ‘simpler’ and ‘grid-like.’ How convenient that our nervous systems so cosily match social gender stereotyping.

The anti-feminist implications of the way Wolf has expanded her own relationship with sex to encompass half of the human population should be obvious to anyone. If the vagina is at the heart of the universal female experience, then trans women will never achieve true womanhood. Neither will asexual or celibate women. Nor women who find sex painful, unenjoyable, or simply not very important. Lesbian, bisexual and queer women were not mentioned once. In so many ways, Wolf’s enormous privilege shone through not only as a heterosexual, cis woman, but in other ways too, like when she enthused about her New York apartment (which has a doorman), her education (Yale was name-dropped as her alma mater) and her gynaecologist (who happens to be a world expert on pelvic nerve disorders). Laurie Penny’s snark that the main message of Vagina is that “private doctors are wonderful if you can afford them” seemed rather apposite.

I wanted to like Naomi Wolf, because she was so eager to engage and share with the women in the audience. It is, however, hard to admire any self-proclaimed feminist who theorises in such essentialist terms, and who seems determined to ignore marginalised women who may need her help more than the largely white, middle-class audience at the Brighton Dome.

Let’s Just Say No to Nadine Dorries

This article was originally published on The Yorker.

No one I have ever met had great sex education. I, for one, was given the ubiquitous condom-on-a-banana lesson from a teacher sporting glow-in-the-dark penis earrings. The lesson culminated in a mysterious box, which had been passed roughly around the class, opening to reveal an ominously broken egg. “That’s like your virginity,” the teacher announced. “Once it’s broken, you can’t put it back together again.”

So, having been subjected to sex education based loosely on the fable of Humpty Dumpty, I am totally supportive of efforts to improve the lessons young adults and teenagers are being given on sex and relationships. Sadly, a regressive bill recently proposed by Nadine Dorries MP managed to gain 67 votes to 61, suggesting that Parliament’s views about how to encourage safe and healthy sex amongst teens is retreating a few decades.

The bill proposes that “girls” aged 13-16 must be given “additional sex education [that] must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity”. Seemingly innocuous, yes? But there are several problems with Dorries’ stance. First of all, giving girls this advice and not their male counterparts expresses a very clear attitude to whose responsibility it is to have safe sex. Yes, girls are the ones who might end up getting pregnant from unprotected sex, but that shouldn’t mean that they are the ones who will, or ought to, care more about the decision to abstain. Contrary to Dorries’ opinion that this will “empower” young girls, the gendering of this issue will create further disparity between the ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour of men and women. Imagine the kids comparing notes: the girls have been told to just say no, whilst the boys were handed the banana.

The abstinence route is not a sure-fire way of reducing teenage pregnancy (America has the highest rate in the Western world). We’ve known this for a while. However, abstinence in itself is certainly a choice which should not be stigmatised, and young people of either gender should feel supported in such a decision, by their partner, friend or teacher. Dorries, however, has a far too narrow view of young people’s choices: “Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: now go and try this for yourself.” So she would rather say: “don’t have sex” and leave it at that?

There is a problem in viewing things the way Dorries does. Yes, showing kids how to wear condoms presents them with one idea of sex and sexuality; pornographic images and sexualised media presents them with a different one. It is not enough to deny them all contact with sex and the issues around it; rather, we should be focusing on the positives and showing them that sex can be fun, safe, loving, exhilarating, and utlimately a experience to embark on when (or if) they feel ready. And, most importantly, your gender affects none of this, despite what Dorries might say.

It’s not just about the panda

This article was originally published on Shrillblog.

As part of their ‘people who made the headlines’ feature, the BBC listed a panda called Sweetie in its female list.

You’d have to be a humourless, militant feminist to find that insulting, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not just about the panda. Let me explain.

When you split anything – a list of newsworthy people, the education system, boxing outfits – by gender, you better make sure it doesn’t enforce insidious beliefs about gender. Such as, I don’t know, that newsworthy men are politicians, soldiers and shooting victims, whereas newsworthy women are rape accusers, brides and cute, fluffy animals.

The BBC, an editor was anxious to comment, wasn’t making a judgment about which men and women had made the most worthy achievements that year. Just who had ‘made the headlines’. So let’s make something clear – the BBC lists reflect our country’s appetite for new stories, and an incredibly disheartening view of what we expect from men and women who make our headlines.

The breakdown – Faces of the year – men

  •  An undercover cop
  • An award-winning actor
  • A binman who scored a YouTube hit with a rap video criticising the Health Secretary
  • A Catholic policeman killed by a bomb in Northern Ireland
  • A Vice-Admiral who masterminded the Bin Laden raid
  • A successful golfer
  • A former features editor at News of the World
  • A guy who got mugged during the riots
  • A farmer who told Rhianna to stop cavorting semi-naked in his field
  • A man who had a suspiciously close relationship with the Defence Secretary
  • A famous football manager
  • A Republican candidate who had to pull out after sexual assault allegations

What this tells us

Headline-worthy men, according to this list, aren’t simply successful actors or sportspeople. They are also Masculine Men™, doing Masculine Jobs (policemen, sportsmen, armed forces, political candidate) and often brushing with violence (getting killed, ordering other people to kill, getting mugged).

Since men are many times more likely than women to do the most dangerous jobs, it might seem logical to see these trends in the media. But if we are more likely to see men getting attacked, attacking others, and heading gung-ho undercover operations in the headlines than women, no wonder rigid expectations of masculinity endemic in our culture. If you aren’t successful, unafraid of violence, or a martyr to violence, you aren’t a real man. You’re certainly not going to make the headlines.

Faces of the year – women

  •  A US Congresswoman shot in the head
  • A successful pop singer
  • A Libyan woman allegedly raped by Gaddafi’s militia
  • A maid-of-honour at a royal wedding with a now-famous posterior
  • Another woman allegedly raped, this time by a high-profile Frenchamn
  • The first Chinese player to win a tennis Grand Slam singles
  • A woman who married a prince
  • A Rupublican Congresswoman beloved of the Tea Party
  • Brazil’s President, the first woman to open a debate at the UN National Assembly
  • Another woman marrying someone
  • A US Marine who went on a date with Justin Timberlake
  • The Infamous Panda

What this tells us

At first, it’s not so bad. Two congresswomen, a successful tennis player, a ground-breaking speech by a female president…2011 was a good year for women!

And yet…

There are 3 brides/bridesmaids in this list. There are 2 (alleged) rape victims. There’s a woman who bagged a date with a famous guy. That makes exactly half of this list focussed on women’s relationships with men, only some of which were consensual.

And there’s the panda. Yes, a carp was once featured in the men’s list, so well done human race, you’ve achieved gender equality (disclaimer: this post contains sarcasm). Did no one at the BBC notice the cringe-worthy fact that the whole story surrounding Tian Tian the panda was her ability to breed? Which is truly the sparkling cherry on top of this hateful cake.

 So, it’s not just about the panda, people. Allow the Feminist Rage to flow. And if any of you utter the sentence “why are you so angry at this when people are starving?!” I will unleash my Kung-Fu Panda moves (once I’ve finished breeding.)

International Women’s Day: Bridging the local and the global

This article was originally published at The Yorker.

On Thursday, 8th March, women and men will be standing on Library Bridge, windswept but smiling. They’ll be holding a large banner covered in messages of solidarity, hope and thanks for the slowly improving rights of women across the world as part of the ‘Join Me on the Bridge’ campaign.

International Women’s Day was founded in 1911, to celebrate the achievements women’s rights campaigners, and to look forward to future triumphs. In 2010, women from the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Congo joined one another on the bridge connecting their lands to oppose violence against women; every year since, women globally have emulated this move, meeting one another to express solidarity with women in war-torn countries who are demanding peace and equality.

Feminists in the west are often confronted with the challenge of looking beyond their borders, and finding ways to combine local activism – which may only benefit relatively privileged women – with activism on a global scale. It can be a daunting prospect. How do we, women and men being educated at a prestigious British university, use our knowledge and freedom to help oppressed women across the globe without imposing our own values and cultures on campaigners trying to gain equality on their own terms?

We can begin by listening to them. To the women in Saudi Arabia, defying the law to prove they are unafraid to claim their equal place with men. To the women in Sierra Leone, educating one another in the harms of Female Genital Mutilation. To the women in DR Congo, used as agricultural labour by the men who own the rural community’s income. To the millions of Afghan girls enrolling in school, when ten years ago there were only a few thousand. To the women in so many countries, doing back-breaking labour alongside men, then looking after the children alone – because that’s ‘women’s work.’

To ensure everyone listens, we have to remind the media, the government and our educators that these voices are out there. As futile as signing a petition, writing a letter to your MP, or introducing a speaker to a local school might feel, never underestimate the importance of awareness-raising. Without that, people with the resources to help and make large, deeply influential changes might remain deaf to the voices that often get missed; to miss women’s voices is a grave mistake.

When we finally listen, we discover something important. Although International Women’s Day is a chance for many of us to step back and remember that there is a global movement towards gender equality, it is also important to remember that women are not a homogenous group. Issues of suffrage, reproductive rights and education (to take only three examples) may be almost universal problems for women, but the solutions to these inequalities may differ from country to country, or culture to culture. As vital as it is that women attain the rights they deserve, it is imperative for western feminists to avoid falling into cultural imperialism and dictating the direction of indigenous feminist movements. From speaking to feminist activists outside of the UK, I’ve learnt that western feminism, with its sexual liberation and pro-choice politics has a bad reputation in many countries, particularly religious states, where even women’s groups shun association with it. That has to be OK with us. Our way of doing feminism isn’t the only way.

If you come and join us on the bridge this Thursday, we can make the first step of showing that we are listening, and that we want to learn. From there, it’s all down to you – what can you do for women this International Women’s Day?