Tag Archives: oppression

How men are using gender identity to deny male privilege

Anyone who has delved into the topic of gender identity has likely heard about the diverging understandings of gender according to queer theory (gender is an arbitrary, personal, unqualifiable feeling) and radical feminism (gender is a social construct with well-defined parameters). This disagreement comes down to how womanhood and manhood are defined (although for reasons obvious to feminists, the nature of womanhood is much more frequently debated) and what we’re ultimately supposed to do about sex/gender stereotypes.

For centuries, women have struggled to break away from the expectations regarding how we’re supposed to look, act, think, and feel. While debates rage on about what it means to be a woman or a man – or a proper lady or a real man – there are people who want to identify as something other than what they were born as or how they’re expected to be. While it’s often said that the reason for this varies from person to person as it’s a purely personal choice, this individualistic approach fails to take into account the inequality between the sexes. This is critical to understanding what’s happening and why because a system whose goal is the dominance of males over females will necessarily seek to define womanhood and manhood, femininity and masculinity, in such a way as to perpetuate that supremacy. It attempts to do this at every opportunity and within every social movement, arguably most aggressively when done under the guise of progressive politics. Once a theory regarding gender is adopted by those who identify as social justice advocates it becomes nearly impossible to question a doctrine already presumed to be revolutionary.

Are we willing to consider that some of the ideas promulgated by such groups could in fact reinforce structures of power rather than challenge them? Is it possible that gender identity is one such example?

The first clue is the prevailing assumption that gender identity exists in a sociopolitical vacuum. We see that where there are males and females, males are able, by virtue of their simply being male, to exert greater physical, sexual, economic, and political power. We see that they enjoy this privilege even when they’re not trying to wield it and are unaware that they have this advantage. The fact that some males feel uncomfortable about this privilege doesn’t undo that privilege. The fact that some males don’t feel comfortable with masculinity and are punished when they don’t conform to it doesn’t change the fact that relative to women, they are still constructed as the dominant class. It is not possible in a patriarchal system for men to be both the oppressors and oppressed relative to women. Please note that I’m not addressing transsexual or transgender people in this post; my focus here is men who don’t have dysphoria, who aren’t trans in any honest sense of the word, who are obscuring the fact that they possess privilege by adopting the language and theory of gender identity.

Here we have a person who in no way whatsoever presents as female or feminine demanding we agree that he is not something he clearly is. Furthermore, he claims that to question this is violence, making it impossible to be on the right side of history in his estimation without denying reality. He insists we ignore the fact that we can accurately predict what any random person would perceive him to be and that this perception, and not his feelings, is what determines how he is treated: as a man, in contrast to how he would be treated if he were a woman.

But of course, he’s not saying he’s a man and he’s not saying he’s a woman. He’s just refusing to say which he is because he’s special, unlike all the “cisgender” people who we’re to believe are walking stereotypes perfectly accepting of the expectations that gender foists upon them. What’s more, “ciswomen” are told that we actually identify with femininity – you know, that collection of traits that have latched themselves onto females and just happen to be deemed inferior to masculine traits? Those supposedly inherent female characteristics meant to engineer our servitude and submission? Gender identity claims that gender is a binary (or a spectrum – gender defenders can’t seem to get this straight), slamming the door on the critical feminist discovery that gender is in fact a hierarchy.

It’s all well and good to recognize that sexist attitudes and bias exist, but how do we explain how they arise and how they continue to be so insidious? The answer is gender: gender is the mechanism by which patriarchy is reproduced. But Kappel doesn’t want to hear about that because he’s too busy figuratively manspreading his way into women’s spaces under the guise of being an oppressed non-male. If you thought this regressive ‘non-male’ bullshit is too ridiculous to gain any traction in feminism these days, think again. People like Aaron Kappel and Sam Escobar avoid the actual violence they would encounter from people men who attack gender non-conforming (GNC) people while demanding access to all of the grievances of visibly GNC people.

This is the trick of the non-binary/agender label when harnessed by men: it’s a way of denying one’s own privilege by neutralizing sex and gender. Reality is overridden by an identity which is activated by mere thought and utterance. That identity is then sanctified and protected. Those who do not comply are policed and shamed. Quite simply, men like Kappel know they’ll be exposed if they dispute the existence of male privilege so they’ve finally found a way around it: male privilege exists but it doesn’t apply to them because they’re different. Presto! A get out of male free card. It may be hard to believe people are falling for it but they are, including women who consider themselves to be feminists.

A common practice in gender identity politics is to single out and vilify women while being careful not to criticize them as women per se because that would make the misogyny all too blatant. Instead, women are criticized as feminists – or a certain type of feminist – because the goal is to validate the idea that there are good feminists and bad feminists and the feminists who accommodate non-binary dudes are the only acceptable ones. All of this works out just fine in a patriarchal context because uncompromising feminists are already presumed to be angry [insert sexist slur here]. So if you were expecting pseudo-feminist organizations to give a platform to men who write whiny, self-validating pieces about how they’re being victimized by terrible women, you’d be justified.

Because that’s exactly what Aaron Kappel did. It’s a common feature of mainstream feminist media like The Establishment, which describes itself as a multimedia site run and funded by women. The site published Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity, in which Kappel says he’s a non-binary (trans) person because he doesn’t embrace stereotypically masculine things. He claims to have felt like the girls he socialized with, although how he could know how these girls actually felt, he doesn’t explain. His language is hyperbolic from the outset: anyone who believes he’s a man is somehow saying he’s not human, that he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t have rights like everybody else, etc. He seamlessly transitions from telling us how sensitive and tortured he is to talking down to women (I’m sorry – certain feminists) he claims are violently excluding him because their struggle for liberation from men like him won’t bend over backwards for his feelings. Feelings he believes can’t possibly be the natural feelings of men. Feelings that make him a not-man. What makes you a man, apparently, is thinking and feeling a particular way – but don’t ask what this means. We’re told it’s up to each person to decide, even though we all know exactly how masculinity and femininity are characterized. When it all gets too complicated, we can just pretend we’re something other than the thing we want to avoid being associated with.

The crucial thing to note here is that while gender identity adherents talk a lot about feelings, in the grand scheme of things it’s not really about feelings. It’s about power, which Kappel reveals here:

Feminism was a direct response to oppression, and oppression lives within us all.

What does it mean to say that oppression lives within all of us? That we all experience oppression? Oppression is characterized by inequality; if everyone experiences it then there is no inequality and there is no oppression. The term is rendered meaningless when feelings are equated with oppression and are given precedence over political movements that seek liberation from social hierarchy.

There’s a lot of talk about intersectional feminism going on right now as a feminism that must validate queer theory and gender identity. Intersectionality provides the critical insight that there are simultaneous axes of power which compound marginalization and shape how specific groups experience oppression (e.g. white women experience sexism but not misogynoir). The problem is that along with that insight, other ideas, which are anything but feminist, slipped in through the back door. A new generation of feminists has been weaned on a stealthy vocabulary of terms and phrases that functions as a kind of script, but unless they have a road map that shows them how these ideas are connected and where they come from, how do they know if they’re going in the right direction?

Take the concept of heteronormativity, for instance. It’s often discussed as a standalone problem, but it’s actually a fundamental element of patriarchy because it dictates how males and females are supposed to behave relative to their biological sex. More specifically, this entails marriage with men being the head of the household and women being assigned the role of wife and mother. Effeminate gay men and other GNC males are victims of discrimination (typically in the form of violence by males – a derivative of masculinity) insofar as they violate the rules of masculinity. Why is this seen as a bad thing? Because a male who doesn’t exude aggression, strength, and power is viewed as a wuss. A sissy. A pussy. A bitch. This behaviour implies femininity and anything associated with females is inferior.

Of all the things GNC men experience, including those who convincingly pass as women, their male socialization inculcates them with negative views toward women and instills in them a sense of entitlement. Gay men still make more money than women and they enjoy the gamut of male privileges. They’re not threatened with corrective rape the way lesbians are. They don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy or a lack of reproductive care or justice. They don’t experience femicide, female genital mutilation or breast ironing. They don’t grow up being made to feel ashamed of their breasts, vaginas, and the painful, exhausting, and messy process of menstruation. Their bodies aren’t mined as sexual commodities to any comparable extent (transwomen are certainly an exception) and they’re not exploited as surrogate mothers. The bodies of women are the source of reproduction of the species and hence the source of all labour. In short, the oppression of females is both social and biological in nature. Who else but a misogynist would deliberately erase this fact? There’s also no distinct axis of oppression in the form of hetero or cis supremacy; what is termed ‘cishetsexism’ is an explication of patriarchy. Nowhere within the framework of sexism do women, feminist or not, oppress men, GNC or not.

Zoom out and the picture is clear: taking into account white supremacy and economic class, at the top of the hierarchy we find rich white men and at the bottom we find poor women of colour (and in a colonial context I think indigenous women deserve a special mention here too). This is a simplified representation, of course, with many ethnicities, nationalities, and other social groups organized within this system. There’s a lot of overlap. But intersectionality is not supposed to be a weapon for men to use against women. It does not mean feminists have to save everyone who thinks they’re oppressed. Feminism was not a direct response to oppression, full stop, as Kappel claims. It was and is a direct response to male supremacy. While radical feminism ultimately aims to dismantle all forms of hierarchy and domination and anti-racism must be an integral part of its politics, feminist politics that do not centre females are not feminist by definition. Now why would men like Kappel fail to mention this? Male privilege, perhaps? Misogyny? Here we have yet another man bulldozing through the incriminating truth to remind feminists that we’re supposed to be here for him. He gets to set the agenda – via a platform created and funded by women, no less. Women, know your place.

humpty

No matter how females identify, our being visibly female marks us as targets. No amount of eschewing certain pronouns, titles, or identities insulates us from this. And just as you can’t identify your way out of being oppressed, you can’t identify your way out of being a member of an oppressor class. Agender and non-binary men would do well to remember this.

Whatever your views on gender identity, it can’t hurt to look a little more closely at a concept that remains a mystery to most people but is shaping legislation around the world. In the following talk, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick, deconstructs gender identity and clarifies the aspects and implications of this doctrine:

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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

“As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female.

Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean having a penis.

Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour. To me, they just looked like reminders of stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I added, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

genderroles

Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.

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What will it take to end sexism?

The topics of gender-based discrimination and abuse continue to pop up in the Canadian media. Personally, I’m still rattled about how conversations about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal have exposed our limits to addressing sexism. It brought me to many videos and articles that helped me probe how I feel about these topics more deeply, especially since I realized how much this has affected me on an emotional level. Looking back on my past, I realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted many times but have never really acknowledged it. Firstly because each time it’s happened it became more normalized in my imagination and secondly because it was almost always at the hands of men I knew and trusted. With each incident, I told myself it could have been worse so it wasn’t that big a deal. They weren’t things you could tell the police about and expect action to be taken. Ubiquity and powerlessness lead to acceptance. But together, these things add up. And while it may seem like we’re getting somewhere because we keep hearing about new allegations of sexual harassment even within government, this isn’t what I would call progress.

While we’re okay with discussing violence against women and sexual misconduct in the public sphere, we should pay close attention to what happens when we land on the concepts of patriarchy and privilege. It quickly becomes apparent just how resistant many people are to acknowledging the fundamental machinations that produce gender-based injustice.

In a recent article, writer Denise Balkissoon articulated something very important while making many men uncomfortable in the process (take a look at the comment section). In Sorry, we haven’t reached a ‘watershed’ on violence against women, Balkissoon says:

I don’t get what is known now that was a mystery yesterday – or why what was ignored yesterday is now so urgent to address. All that’s different now is that we know one guy’s name, and that guy happens to be famous.

This is a sobering point. Why haven’t all the shocking stories we’ve heard jolted us into making substantial progress? What will it take to change things? Every time we try to take a step forward we’re met with a backlash. Expecting that the problem would go away if only women would come forward is unrealistic and unfair. These things don’t happen because of the conduct of the victims. And in addition to being discouraged from coming forward or fighting back, doing so may actually place us in greater danger, as comedian Amanda Seales explains in the video below. She cites the case of a woman who was murdered in Detroit after rejecting a man who asked for her number (of course, the clueless dolt debating her thinks she could have solved the issue by carrying a gun). As much as this guy pisses me off though, watching this is a guilty pleasure because Seales’ facial expressions are priceless.


I’m sick and tired of being smeared for standing up to sexism. There’s a plethora of labels and insults reserved for women like me. The moment I try to get to the root of the problem, I’m met with hatred and disdain. It happens all the time and it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s trollish behaviour. These trolls work with us and ride the subway with us. They’re real people and this is not a game. We need to stop bullshitting each other about how serious this problem is. And not only does the “not all men” excuse do nothing to neutralize the impact of sexism, but as Michael Laxer explains with razor-sharp precision, actually, it is all men:

We, collectively, and most commonly as individuals, are responsible for creating the conditions that not only facilitate Ghomeshi, but that ensure he will exist. This is a very uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. It is all men and the society that they produced that allowed a misogynist, alleged serial abuser to rise to and feel comfortable within the halls of media and fame, despite the now known and clear indications that he was a predator all along and that many, many people could have done something about it but did not.

That’s the ugly thing about privilege: even individuals who aren’t actively abusive benefit from it. Another great point by Root Veg quoted from the comment section of Laxer’s article:

You all benefit from the Jian Ghomeshis of this world, not just because it ensures men’s dominant status, but because other men’s terrorism of women lowers the bar for your qualification as a Good Guy to the absolute bare minimum.

This one hit me like a punch to the face. Now I understand what had me on high alert when I learned about the social media campaign known as MANifestChange. MANifestChange among other things encourages men to speak out by snapping a picture of themselves and pledging to help fight violence against women. Awesome! Or is it?

What I like about this idea is that it places the onus on males to do something. I’m glad there are men out there who want to end patriarchy. I’m just not sure that challenging male privilege means taking cookie-winning selfies. If you’re a man with a conscience, the best thing you can do to help us gals out is to actively challenge your male privilege on a daily basis. It’s hard work. You probably won’t relish the effort involved or the flack you’re going to get. But guess what? If it’s not inconveniencing you, it’s not really helping.

While participating in initiatives like MANifestChange can be just a part of the work someone does, this aspect of the campaign still bugs me. It’s cute. It’s fun. Guys score brownie points with the ladies. And see, I think that’s the problem. This isn’t supposed to make you look good whether you mean it to or not. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to see a closeup of your mug so we can appreciate how nice a guy you are. Just be that guy. Do it anonymously. Like the philanthropist who donates to a hospital but refuses to put their name on a plaque. That’s how you make sure it’s 100% not about you.

I know we all want to support each other in solidarity and be nice by acknowledging that every little bit counts. But is it really true that every little bit counts in a good way?

How effective is a campaign like HeForShe in addressing oppression, for example? Sometimes what we gain in attracting attention to our cause by putting a celebrity in front of the microphone is erased when they stumble over their own privilege and ignorance, thus undermining our ability to have a really deep conversation. These incidents remind us that within movements of the oppressed, some of us (e.g. white females) still don’t get it and that’s usually because we have privileges of our own that need to be checked. Mia McKenzie’s Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N. is a must read because it elevates some important caveats about privilege and how centering these issues on the privileged (e.g. “Guys suffer from patriarchy too!”) is a really good way of protecting them from acknowledging that they’re, well, privileged.

Thankfully, the folks at MANifestChange seem to have a lot more up their sleeve:

Like many people who possess privilege, many males are willing to acknowledge that sexism exists but tend to assume they’re not part of it. By looking at the representations of women in video games, Anita Sarkeesian holds up a mirror to society and the results are horrifying. Yes, we know that women are constantly eroticized and objectified, but does its deeply systemic nature blind us to just how bad it is? I don’t play the kinds of games that Sarkeesian reviews in the video below (not many women do), so I was legitimately shocked when I saw how normalized it is in the minds of boys and men alike (please note the content warning):


Challenging your own privilege isn’t supposed to be fun because it means denying your ego and giving something up. That’s why people feel threatened when they’re called to do it. It means being silent and letting people share their views and experiences, and then taking the time to seriously think about what they have to say. In our rapid fire culture of communication, the fact that we’re hardwired to react doesn’t help. But I don’t believe that sexism is any less of an issue than it was three decades ago. So while sympathy may be a nice gesture, it’s just another way of avoiding the problem. And empathy is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from decent people anyway. Much work remains to be done.

 

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Sex, power, and the myth about consent

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that Jian Ghomeshi, a well-known Canadian broadcaster and radio host, is no longer employed by the CBC. The CBC has vaguely stated that the reason centres around information they received about Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi claims that he was fired because his employer was afraid that the details of his sexual life might become public and create unwanted controversy. Ghomeshi is now suing his former employer for about $50 million and wasted no time in posting his side of the story on his Facebook page, claiming that he’s a victim. Some people question why he would spill the beans on his BDSM lifestyle, but I think it makes sense if it’s all going to come out eventually anyway. Juicy details will inevitably emerge as a result of the suit, so maybe he figured he’d just get in front of it. It’s certainly one way of demonstrating that he thinks he has nothing to hide and has done nothing wrong.

Some time ago, I read an article by a woman about a bad date she allegedly had with Ghomeshi, whom she characterized as a womanizing, sexually aggressive creep. At this point, what we know is that a number of women allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them.

One of the things people are arguing about is the issue of consent; it doesn’t matter so much whether Ghomeshi enjoys having kinky sex as the fact that these women are saying that he acted violently toward them, and not in a way that they had discussed or consented to. In other words, the allegation is that he didn’t just have a raunchy, rough tumble in the hay with them – he outright assaulted them. And you can’t consent to assault.

So why are we talking about consent? As a feminist issue it’s getting lots of attention. But becoming more sexually liberal as a society, so in addition to talking about consent in the context of rape, we’re also becoming more knowledgeable about alternative or fringe sexual lifestyles. Books, movies, other sources of information and forms of entertainment have added to the discourse and practices such as polyamory are getting more mainstream attention. It is possible for adults to engage in genres of consensual sex that most people don’t find arousing or pleasant. Leaving aside what “most people” actually means – because we don’t really know what people do behind closed doors – what I’d like to argue here is that consent isn’t a magical ingredient that makes everything okay all the time. While unequivocal consent is critical, it doesn’t automatically cleanse any given situation of ethical questions. This is where I think discussions about BDSM can get messy, so naturally it’s at this juncture that I think we have the most to gain in terms of how we approach the topics of sex, power, and gender.

I don’t practice a BDSM lifestyle. Never have, never will. I only know people who do. I think there’s a level of comprehension about what it is and how it works that a person on the outside can’t fully grasp. It can take on an endless number of variations and involves complicated protocols. Practitioners say it’s not a license for random debauchery; it’s a structured way of satisfying one’s urges that’s based on trust and communication. And what many people take to be kinky (e.g. hair pulling, handcuffs, spanking, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as kinky in the BDSM world. Buying a racy toy at a sex shop is a far cry from joining a leather family.

Now, I’m the sort of feminist who believes that patriarchy still governs our daily lives on multiple levels and that consent does not erase this reality. I believe that like any form of oppression, sexism can be internalized and reproduced even by victims, in different ways and for different reasons. So the contention that no exploitation can possibly exist where a woman provides her consent just doesn’t fly with me.

In a recent Twitter spat, someone told me flat out: you either accept all forms of sexuality or you don’t. This was their response to my opinion that in a patriarchal society, a man who craves the sexual domination of women is a misogynist. My opponent’s argument was that this was like stating that homosexuality is wrong because it’s underpinned by the same moralistic attitude. The thing is, the only reason anyone would be critical of homosexuality would be as a result of religious or cultural conditioning. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong about the idea of people of the same sex acting on their attraction for one another. I agree that ignorance still factors into social norms regarding sexuality. We’re raised to think in predetermined ways about what’s acceptable and what’s not, so anything that falls outside of “respectable” or “vanilla” sexual encounters is frowned upon without much examination. But those norms are in large part constructed to control women. And equating criticism of one person acting violently toward another to criticizing homosexuals who have consensual sex is terrible logic that not only uses homosexuals as pawns but also ignores some important considerations.

No, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. Just because something turns someone on, they shouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue it with abandon by virtue of that fact. There are people who are sexually aroused by morbidity, including things that very few people would consider acceptable. Even in cases where consent exists (I’m thinking of men who agree to allow other men to cannibalize their sexual organs), whatever the reason or cause for that type of fixation, it’s not healthy. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. That’s an empty existential argument. It’s irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.

Sure, one could describe an outsider determining when exploitation exists as being paternalistic. But women who are abused and prostituted often don’t recognize that they’re involved in an abusive situation because they’ve been rendered dependent on someone who is manipulating and controlling them. Stockholm Syndrome is a thing, and a community that glorifies torture, sadism and masochism attracts people who wish to prey on others as well as people who’ve already been groomed into submission. One might argue that BDSM itself, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But the culture out of which the practice arose is patriarchal. How has this practiced managed to avoid internalizing any of that? And how does a person who’s devoted to equality and justice justify the eroticization of domination?

How is it ever okay for a person – male or female – to be gagged, made to vomit, choked or punched? Why would anyone get turned on by having those things done to them or by doing it to someone else? Analyzing what it means to want to be humiliated or to want to humiliate someone else isn’t a matter of imposing normalcy on people with freaky habits. It’s not healthy. There’s a difference between raw, even rough passionate sex, and domination. We don’t always understand our impulses. We might want to be ravished – but that’s nothing close to, say, being tied up and having sensitive areas of the body zapped with electrical currents. Or walking on all fours with a dog collar around your neck.

Some people feel that there’s a physical connection between pain and pleasure because they can push us beyond our boundaries both physically and emotionally. They can be transcendent. I think that in some cases, this is all a person might crave, and someone they trust helps them to fulfill that desire. For them, gender, income, etc. don’t matter – they’re just two human beings sharing a private experience of their choosing. Why should that be our business? Because we live in a world that’s ordered and structured by social inequality. How many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly individualized territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism?

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting is a different story. It’s simply not true that everything that happens between consenting adults is between them and them only. Consider the case of a battered wife. She doesn’t consent to the battery, but if she stays in the relationship and refuses to call the police, the abuser has license to continue. Should we do nothing?

There’s a reason for the distinction between civil and criminal law. In common law, a tort is a private wrong, whereas a crime can involve something the assailant does to just one other person – and even behind closed doors, on their own property – but they can be charged with a crime by the government on behalf of society. When a harmful act is serious enough, our legal institutions say it involves all of us. That’s an important tenet. The concepts of consent and privacy in sex and relationships have legitimate bases and should be respected, but they shouldn’t be exploited by extrapolating those concepts to every private situation imaginable in order to shield individuals from accountability. You can’t draw an imaginary boundary around your bedroom and pretend that anything goes.

Furthermore, when a person who holds a position of privilege acts in a violent way toward someone who lacks that privilege, don’t we understand that as an act committed against that entire group of oppressed people? When a person hurls a slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. It’s not a one-on-one situation. And why should it make any difference whether the act was of a sexual nature, or whether she begged for it?

Even if a woman is intelligent, emotionally stable with no history of abuse and fully understands the implications of a dominant sexual relationship (which I recognize is true of many women who participate in BDSM), the man isn’t home free as far as I’m concerned. What are we to make of men, all of whom possess male privilege whether they’re raging sexists or not, who argue that they’re not doing anything wrong as long as a woman consents to sexual aggression, torture, submission, discomfort, control, or violence? The key question is this: Why, in a patriarchal society, would a man crave the domination of women, sexual or otherwise? He already has plenty of power and privilege over women. Why the thirst for even more control?  What is it about that exactly that excites him, and why? The only way this makes sense from a pathological standpoint is if a man harbours feelings of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, loss, or uncertainty. That’s parasitic. And oppressive. It’s not any woman’s responsibility to be a punching bag for someone else’s benefit. Those things should be worked out between the person who has those urges and a trained therapist whose labour is compensated. When a person with privilege tells themselves they’re powerless and refuses to take responsibility for solving that problem, that’s dysfunctional. And potentially dangerous.

When I ask myself whether I would lose respect for a man if he was okay with indulging in rape fantasies, even if it was my idea, the answer without any doubt is yes. It’s my firm belief that a decent man would be alarmed by such a request and understand that it’s not the request or the consent that determine its ethics; it’s the question of whether it plays into the patriarchy that’s still a reality today. Any ethical person who possesses privilege should recoil from an opportunity to further entrench that privilege even if it’s sanctioned, and even if it piques their sexual interest (and arguably, especially when it piques their interest).

In the course of my discussions about the subject of BDSM and sexism, some people have asked me: What about women who want to dominate men? When we consider that women live in a world dominated by men, it’s understandable that a woman might feel empowered or aroused by the opportunity to dominate a man who agrees to submit to her. As long as male privilege is a reality, we can never substitute a man for a woman and pretend that the situation is comparable. Personally, I don’t find the idea of dominating anyone appealing. Such a compulsion may signal an underlying issue that won’t go away with temporary relief from some emotional discomfort.

It’s important to note that although there are men who fetishize femininity and submission, this doesn’t represent an equalization or neutral endeavour. Men who engage in these practices usually use misogynistic language, calling themselves (or asking to be called) “bitch”, “slut”, “sissy”, etc. These terms debase women, not men.

Ultimately, no matter who you are, the idea of dominating another human being in whatever way is rooted in ego and the fetishism of power. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine this because even if some people believe it’s natural for them, that doesn’t make it natural or acceptable in general, and it matters most of all because this has the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.

Although we all live in a highly subjective reality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that some things just are wrong. Defining that is a messy business that will continue to evolve, but it’s precisely because it’s a controversial subject that we should seize the opportunity to establish why weird isn’t wrong, unusual isn’t wrong, and we should always be open to talking about what “wrong” actually means. The idea of wrong already rules our lives in legal and social terms, so why not bring it out into the open so we can figure out what it means for us today, rather than blindly condemning or condoning an entire subset of practices that might be quite different, one from another? We like to pretend that morality is relevant only when it concerns issues such as poverty and greed but irrelevant where it might infringe on individual and especially perceived sexual rights.

I’m all for sexual expression, but not where we use the principles of individuality and personal freedom as tools to take advantage of the willingness of others to be vessels for violence. Exploitation with consent is still exploitation. If you can’t explain why your actions are ethical other than to say, “It’s none of your business” or “They wanted me to do it”, that’s not good enough. We have to do better than that.

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