Tag Archives: patriarchy

An open letter to Fightback: how the left fails women

Yesterday I received my last copy of Fightback (Issue 91). Some of the leftist analysis in this journal is decent and I feel that the meager $20 I paid for a yearly subscription was well spent. I will not, however, be renewing my subscription, the reasons for which I’m providing in an open letter because they speak to the challenges that women often face when we try to organize for our rights within leftist circles.

In the first article in this issue, The niqab debate: A weapon of mass distraction, Joel Bergman correctly and articulately describes Stephen Harper’s hypocrisy in trying to present himself as a defender of women’s rights through his grandstanding around the niqab. Harper says that the practice of covering a woman so that only her eyes are visible is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. If we’re being honest, it’s impossible to imagine how a culture that renders women essentially invisible while allowing men to dress as they wish can not be considered to be anti-women. An egalitarian culture would see this as unthinkable. We’ve heard the argument that veiled women, especially those who have immigrated to Canada, wear the niqab by choice. How many of these women’s families would be supportive if they decided they wanted to wear jeans a t-shirt with nothing on their heads? The niqab is not a female creation and it is worn within a social context that does not afford women autonomy or equal status.

Nevertheless, the government has deliberately created confusion about the personal identification process involved in citizenship. We know that the hegemonic “culture” that Harper refers to is a contrived notion that seeks to paint every brown-skinned Muslim with the same extremist brush. He wants us to think they’re all current or future terrorists and a horrifying percentage of Canadians agree with him. Part of what’s so sickening about the niqab debate is that conservatives have nothing to teach anyone about women’s rights.

But neither do leftists, it seems. Only in a patriarchal society could individuals outraged by the niqab attack the women wearing it and not the men who enforce this code of conduct. When we see New Democrat support in Quebec swinging toward the nationalist Bloc Quebecois as a result of this debate, we have to wonder about the class consciousness of people who only consider voting for the two parties in Quebec that can be described by some measure as progressive. White working class and middle class men have traditionally organized around economic class, but there are other forms of class oppression which Marxism still fails to address.

Simply put, why is a man writing an article about women’s rights? Couldn’t Fightback find a woman to write on this topic? Come to think of it, why are all four of the articles in this issue – and almost every article in every issue I’ve ever read – written by men? Let me explain why you picked the wrong person to cover the niqab debate and women’s rights. Bergman writes:

“In supposedly fighting for the emancipation of women, the Harper Conservatives, in alliance with Quebecois nationalists and liberal feminists alike end up using the state to once again take away women’s right to choose.”

I’m sorry? Choice is a keystone of liberal feminism that can apply to literally anything a woman might decide to do because making that decision in itself is considered to be empowering, including wearing a mini skirt or a hijab, being a submissive in a BDSM relationship, or stripping. To deny a woman her agency, as this theory goes, would be anti-feminist. Basically, the guy writing about women’s rights is trying to critique a branch of feminism, which he gets backwards but is actually a proponent of, without even knowing it.

But here’s what sent Fightback sailing into my blue box:

“The niqab cannot be legislated away. What is needed is to create the conditions in which women themselves choose to reject it. The only real way to do this is not through state imposition and policing, but through building a mass united movement of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression and against the capitalist system itself which forms the cement foundation, perpetuating all of the rotten garbage that we see in our society today.”

None of the women who could honestly call themselves feminists are suggesting that state institutions be used to prevent women from wearing the niqab. More importantly, only a member of the dominant class can afford to believe that a mass movement of oppressed peoples will do anything other than prioritize the goals of the privileged class. How do men, who are members of the biggest oppressor class on the planet, imagine they’ll help to bring about women’s liberation when so many of them imagine themselves to be educated on women’s rights but have never bothered to learn feminist theory? I don’t want to organize alongside Marxist men who repeat all the mainstream feminist talking points only to go home and watch violent, misogynistic porn. I don’t want to surround myself with “comrades” who think that socialism is the answer to patriarchy because I’ve seen far too many lefty men use the same tactics as their conservative brethren to silence and bully women.

The next time Fightback runs an article on women’s issues, I hope you’ll demonstrate your commitment to women by elevating our voices and actively challenging the pervasive culture of male entitlement. You might also consider providing more feminist content. The class analysis of radical feminism is something that anti-capitalist movements could greatly benefit from. You see, capitalism grew out of a patriarchal, white supremacist ideology – not the other way around. After all, there would be no market in capitalism for women’s bodies in the first place if men didn’t think they existed for their own use and abuse. There are plenty of women who would have done a better job of analyzing this topic, among others, including those outside the realm of women’s issues. No one will believe that you believe that if you don’t hand over the microphone.

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‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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Women need fierce leaders

Some people are calling for the resignation of a Progressive Conservative bigwig who mocked the weight of Alberta’s Health Minister. I won’t repeat his words here, but suffice it to say that he claimed that a woman who is overweight is not qualified to set health policy.

Criticizing someone’s appearance rather than their conduct is superficial and childish. It’s a classic straw [wo]man tactic. Women are scrutinized at a rate much higher than what men experience, especially when they occupy prominent positions, so it can’t be explained away simply as fatphobia or body shaming. In their article on the Health Minister the National Post consulted Clare Beckton, executive director of Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, who said that the comments would never have been made about a male politician. She said:

“It’s misogynist. It’s inappropriate… Since when has appearance had anything to do with legitimacy in terms of your intelligence and ability to be a legislator?”

Beckton said the body-shaming episode is evidence that stereotyping and bias against women politicians are still real issues.

She’s exactly right. But then… this:

“There are a certain number of people who still want to pull women down,” she said. “It’s a small minority of men who would make these kinds of comments. They’re not the majority.”

What purpose does this statement serve?

Here we see another example of hedging what would otherwise be insightful analysis with yet more #NotAllMen apologism. This is the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a random man pulled off the street. But we’re talking about a spokeswoman for a women’s organization. One that advocates for female leadership, no less. One might assume that by extension this makes the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership a feminist organization. Is it? Perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.

A Google domain search shows that the word ‘feminism’ hasn’t appeared on the Centre’s website since 2012 (one of two times, the first being in 2011).

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There are several mentions of the word ‘sexism’.

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Not too many. And we know that sexism is a friendly way to say ‘patriarchy’, and that word doesn’t show up once on the site.

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On its website, the Centre states that it “works with a wide range of partners to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life, in Canada and internationally”. When you click on the link to their sponsors, only one is listed: Goldcorp. A corporation that according to the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples operates on 85% of indigenous territory and whose activities have contaminated their environment. Volumes of human rights and environmental abuses have been documented, particularly in jurisdictions where Goldcorp enjoys weak regulation and enforcement.

Is it a coincidence that the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership is publishing reports such as The Pathway Forward: Creating Gender Inclusive Leadership in Mining and Resources? Here’s an excerpt:

The mining industry has the opportunity now to take leadership to capitalize on women’s untapped potential by increasing women’s participation on mining boards, in senior leadership positions and entry level positions.

In other words, let’s bring women – whom we didn’t care about until relatively recently – on board so we can exploit their labour too, all while scoring brownie points. What I want to know is why women are being asked to participate in ecocide. Why are we being encouraged to imagine the world, as women and workers, from a capitalist lens? Is that the compromise we’re supposed to make in order to be recognized as human beings and included in the economy – not even afforded the room to consider whether or not this is how we want to live? Radical feminists want to build a society that reflects women’s needs and worldviews, including those that challenge the current economic and social systems. We want liberation, not inclusion.

It becomes increasingly clear why the National Post, a conservative publication, would choose to print comments filtered through organizations like the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership. They knew they weren’t going to get a fundamentally critical analysis.

Feminism isn’t just about gender equality in the sense of having equal representation in government roles, executive positions, etc. This is just one of many necessary ingredients. Time and time again, we see that women have been socialized to internalize patriarchal attitudes and ideologies. There are powerful women who hope to gain the support of other women because of their shared sex, but such blind allegiance can be dangerous. Hillary Clinton may say a lot of great things about women’s rights but she also happens to be a shill for the military industrial complex. There can be no liberation for anyone, women especially, under imperialism and colonialism. It’s deeply racist to advocate for reproductive rights at home while sanctioning the massacre and torture of women abroad.

Women often compromise for the sake of likability and even safety, particularly when they represent an organization that wants to appeal to a wider audience. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Clare Beckton seems to grasp the issues. She’s an intelligent woman doing important advocacy work. I just have a very difficult time accepting a woman of her knowledge and influence peddling what she must know is a falsehood; that a small minority of men are misogynists. How is that possible when misogyny is so rampant? Behaviour characterized by sexism and stereotyping is by definition systemic and thus cannot be the fault of a handful of people. It’s so much deeper than that.

My hope is that the women who speak for all of us will follow their feminist analysis to its logical conclusion, speak their truth as women, and resist the temptation to dress up controversial opinions in pretty packaging because when people look inside, they’re not going to like what they see anyway. Forget likability. Forget compromise. Women need fierce leaders.

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“For the commanding man”: lathering up the male ego

A few days ago I was in the supermarket when I happened upon Old Spice body wash. I’ve seen the commercials so even though I’ve never bought this product I was somewhat prepared for the ridiculousness that is Old Spice marketing.

What kind of guy looks at this packaging and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me! Maybe now that uptight bitch at the office will notice me’?

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Of course, it’s all intended to be ironic in the ‘Yes, I know it’s stupid and that’s the point’ hipster vein. But acknowledging that something you’re deliberately doing is stupid doesn’t make it any less stupid (quite the opposite, actually).

If I recall correctly, at some point while I was in university men started to care about what kind of body wash they use. Deodorant was no longer just a way of making sure you didn’t reek. It was a surefire way to turn any woman close enough to smell you into your own personal sex slave. If I had to take a guess I’d say the marketing team at Old Spice wasn’t satisfied that metrosexuals were doing a good enough job of defending masculinity.

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The Old Spice family is a diverse one. Whatever your self-image and olfactory orientation, they’ve got you covered.

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Are you a big, burly bear? A swift-minded hawk? Or perhaps you’re a howl-at-the-moon type? No? That’s okay. Old Spice has loads of other manhood-validating options.

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DANGER!

I would love to set up a hidden camera in this aisle. Some of this stuff doesn’t even make sense. I can understand a forest being fresh, but what exactly does it mean to be fresher than nobility?

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“Life success”? UGH.

Now for a painful confession: there is one that I actually liked but I won’t say which one. I don’t want to give these weirdos any credit. Though I will say it’s not Denali – which is either really popular or sucks so much it doesn’t get restocked.

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Who knows? Apparently it smells like wilderness, open air, and freedom.

Anyway, whichever variation the Old Spice man chooses, at least he can be sure he won’t feel insecure in the shower. Because the male ego should never endure one second of not being stroked. Even while one is scrubbing one’s nether regions… or maybe that’s when it’s needed most?

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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.

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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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Filed under Canada, Eastern Philosophy, Feminism & Gender, Health & Environment, Politics & Society

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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Filed under Feminism & Gender, Politics & Society