For confident and assertive girls who don’t “need” feminism

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had quite a few opportunities to be a feminist in ‘real life’. A mixture of student journalism and seminar-style work has given me the opportunity to put a lot of what I throw around here into practice, and that’s been really awesome and helpful, both for me and (hopefully) the people I’ve been talking with. I’ve been sharing my personal experiences and also broader views, and as such I have been consistently labeled as a feminist. Sometimes a sex-positive feminist, sometimes an LGBT+ feminist, and sometimes just a girl who’s really into women’s issues (which I know isn’t exactly the same thing, but if the shoe fits, etc.). While I generally don’t believe labels are all that helpful, I’m proud of that one, all the more so now that it’s become a dirty word that is so often used to dismiss arguments (‘crazy angry man-hating feminists, of course they’re going to get their panties in a twist over the coverage of the Steubenville rape case’, and the like – yes, I think it’s horrific, no, I don’t have anything new or insightful to add to it).

The upshot is that one of the things I’ve been told a lot is that I sound like I’ve always been a feminist, that I have the kind of confidence and assurance in my views that makes my arguments compelling. And I couldn’t be more flattered to hear this. But it’s got me thinking about when and how that came about. More specifically, it’s reminded me of a moment I thought I’d forgotten, a moment I am certainly not proud of.

I was fifteen, recently out as bi at school, and still working out this whole sexuality thing. I was definitely into LGBT+ rights though, and talked passionately about things like gay marriage and homophobic bullying in schools. One of my friends from the scene was chatting to me online one day, talking about how she’d had a really awful day, being overwhelmed with news stories full of misogynistic bullshit, and how it was really getting her down. I don’t know how we got onto whether or not I was a feminist, but I clearly remember dismissing her. No, I’m not a feminist. I just don’t think we really need all that anymore, do we? Women have equal rights now. I just think there are more important things.

I cringe to remember that, my fifteen-year-old self parroting a line I now wince to hear, a classic trolling argument. There are so many things wrong with that statement it embarrasses me that I once believed it, especially given how progressive I thought I was. I don’t recall what happened, but I think my friend backed off pretty quickly, shocked to have someone she thought was an ally turn against her so obviously.

The thing is, when I was fifteen, I really didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise. I was raised by liberal, open-minded parents. My mother had a successful career and had never changed her name when she got married (one of the reasons I laugh when people tell me I ought to change mine when the time comes because ‘it’s nice to make everyone feel like a family‘ – right, because I clearly didn’t have a family). More importantly, they’d sent me to a fantastic school, one that had been set up on the principle that girls were just as intelligent as boys, and deserved exactly the same chances.

While I know that there can be many problems with a single-sex educational environment, for me, going to an all-girls school was amazing. I know how privileged this makes me, but before I was seventeen (when I first started meeting boys), I genuinely believed that misogyny and sexism were over. Men who believed that women were less competent or ambitious or successful were something we studied in history lessons. There was never even the slightest hint that science and maths were ‘boys’ subjects’ – the most popular subject for A-level was maths. I was taught from my very first day that I was going to be academically successful, as successful as any man, probably more so. I was taught confidence, self-assurance, how to present my views, argue my case, speak with passion and with conviction. I was taught to value myself, and I was surrounded by highly intelligent women, both teachers and students, who thought the same.

I was lucky, and I was privileged. I owe my parents and my circumstances a huge amount for my education, and for the way I am now. But the thing about privilege is that most of the time you don’t realise you have it. That’s one of the privileges. I’d never met anyone who treated women like second-class citizens, like sex objects, like baby-making machines, like children, like collections of hormones – in short, like anything other than full and equal human beings. I knew the history, but I thought it was just that, history. I thought sexism ended when women got the vote. And worst of all, I thought women who thought otherwise were whining and overreacting and acting like victims.

That’s why, when my friend asked if I was a feminist, I denied it so strongly. It took a lot to get me from that to where I am today, a lot of I’m not a feminist, I just believe women should be treated equally, a lot of I’m very much for equal pay and abortion rights, I’m just not one of those crazy feminists. Beginning to understand rape culture took three horrible direct encounters with it, and even then it was a year before I properly began reading and connected what had happened to me with all this ‘feminism’ business that was floating around. (How that came about is the subject of another post entirely, but is just as important.) In short, it took work.

I love my school, and my old teachers. I owe them a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I realise how lucky I was to have been brought up that way. But in a conscious effort to raise young women to value themselves and to never doubt that they were worth as much as any man, they missed out something crucial. They never taught me that this was an effort, and that, in the real world, life wasn’t like that. In all honesty, I was probably happier that way, not knowing. But when people act surprised that I have such conviction in what I believe now and the confidence to express it, it makes me think about how I learnt that confidence alongside being taught that the issues I am so passionate about didn’t exist.

I hope there’s a middle ground, somehow. I really, really want to find it.

Julie Burchill does not speak for me

The latest shit storm to hit the UK progressive blogosphere is an ‘article’ (diatribe) in the Observer by Julie Burchill, about how ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. It was the sort of transphobic hate-speech you’d use as as a theoretical example to demonstrate what transphobic hate-speech looked like. It was finally taken down, but I think republished on the Telegraph website because of ‘free speech’ issues. (Sidenote: one of these days I am going to spend some time and energy working out a way to explain that free speech =/= right to a privileged high-profile platform. I have free speech. I post stuff on my blog. Doesn’t mean I feel I have the right to be printed in national newspapers. Though if anyone would like to, that’d be awesome?) I’m not going to link to it, but it’s pretty easy to google, and there’s a very well-written letter to the Observer here, and a good summary plus some further reading material here at The F Word. I would strongly advise reading all of it.

ETA: Jezebel has done a round-up that is also brilliant, complete with appropriate gifs. Feel free to share more links in the comments, if you find something else worth reading.

So what do I have to add? Well, very little. I’m a privileged cisgendered white girl, and I know it. I don’t really blog about my gender identity. Or rather, I do. I take it as a given. I try to use non-gendered language when I can, and usually I’m writing about very specific personal experience, so it’s less relevant, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do a great job of it. I  don’t talk about non-binary gender issues because the simple fact is I don’t feel qualified, and I would much rather anyone reading this went off and read some amazing trans* and genderqueer blogs instead of my clumsy summaries. I have gay and lesbian friends. I have trans* friends. I have genderqueer friends, and friends whose gender identities do not fit neatly into any particular label. This does not make me qualified to talk about gender issues, and though I like to think of myself as an ally (don’t we all), I know that there are gaping holes in my knowledge, that I am going to slip up sometimes, and that it is not my place to discuss it.

And yet, even with all of that, here’s what I’m going to say about Julie Burchill’s piece. It is hate speech, pure and simple. I am heartened by the fact that so many people outside of the LGBT+ community have acknowledged that it is hate speech, and that it eventually got taken down. It is full of disgusting, vitriolic, downright violent sentiment, and it got the response it deserved.

But I don’t doubt for a moment that Julie Burchill genuinely believes it. And the thing is, if you read it closely (which I don’t advise if you’re having a bad day), you see that she’s not really talking about trans* people at all. She’s talking about men. Men in dresses, men who want to ‘cut their dicks off’ (that’s a direct paraphrase of a tweet by Suzanne Moore), men who are pretending to be women in order to enter her feminist space.

In her mind, a trans woman is a man. And that makes everything she says from that point onwards impossible to argue with, because that basic premise is so entirely detached from reality there’s no way to persuade her. She is wrong. She is so appallingly, horrifyingly, dangerously wrong. But she is wrong in such a way that I don’t think there’s any space for dialogue here. It’s like those people who argue that black people are just biologically less intelligent than white people, or that the Holocaust never happened (oh look, I just broke Godwin’s Law, deal with it). The point is, when someone is starting from a point of view that just doesn’t make any sense, anything that comes after that is… irrelevant.

That’s not to say I think we should be ignoring it. It is hate speech, it should not have been published, and she deserves to be vilified for what she wrote. Maybe the strong wave of anti-transphobic sentiment is a good thing, long-term? I don’t know, nor do I feel it’s my place to offer an opinion. But Julie Burchill will not change her mind, just like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel will never change their minds. To them, trans women are just men who want to invade their special exclusive feminism, and I can’t see them ever going back on that.

That is not any kind of feminism I want to be part of. And while I try very hard to stay away from defining what feminism is or isn’t for other people, in my mind, that’s not really feminism at all? Burchill has yet to learn both that trans women are women, and that feminism isn’t just about women anyway – it’s about groups that lack privilege, whether due to gender identity, sexuality, race, class, disability, or anything else.

The one thing her original article has done is get feminists and progressives from all over to state loudly and publicly that this woman does not speak for us. She certainly does not speak for me. And I think that’s important. I just wish we didn’t need to say it in the first place.

That rare and exotic creature: the feminist man

Aaaaand it’s the holidays, everyone breathe. I am becoming reacquainted with a long-lost friend, sleep, and with a host of terrible TV shows offered on iplayer. It is wonderful. Happy holidays to everyone, and I hope that you all get the rest that you deserve. Short days (dark at 4pm – what is this madness?!) and weather that freezes my ears make me hate this time of year, so it’s good to remember that there are some benefits.

I never did find out what happened with Icarus and Mystery-Girl, but sadly I think he probably didn’t take my advice to just ask her what was going on. People seldom do. Maybe sex-positive communicative feminism is just too extreme and hardcore for the world to handle. Or maybe my friends are afraid of becoming sexually frustrated bloggers who chronicle their lives on the internet in order to avoid the harsh truths of reality. Which would be fair enough. I sympathise either way.

Anyway. Some of you might remember Leander, an absolutely awesome guy I was seeing last year, and who remains one of my closest friends. Leander has had a wonderful girlfriend since February, and they have the sort of healthy, communicative relationship I keep going on about. He is also still a passionate feminist and addicted to the progressive blogosphere, which is one reason why I love him. This can sometimes surprise people, since Leander is a straight white male (or ostensibly straight, at any rate), who went to a posh school and has professional upper-middle-class parents. In other words, he’s basically the poser child for privilege.

This has a couple of interesting outcomes. For one thing, people tend to listen to him a lot more than they ever do to me, because while I am either a crazy man-hating feminist or an irrational and hysterical woman, Leander is a calm, reasonable man who talks sense. Even when we are making the exact same arguments about the exact same topics. This is often frustrating for me, but it’s not his fault he’s more persuasive, and really, I should be happy that he’s out there making an impact. Any way to win battles, and all that.

But I don’t think I ever realised the flip-side of this until about a week ago, when Leander posted a general acknowledgment on facebook that he is proud to call himself a feminist, because he believes that men and women are equals, and doesn’t see why other people who believe this wouldn’t want to be called feminists. It was, in my opinion, a nice gesture, but nothing particularly loaded or provocative. I post about abortion and rape apologia and sexism all the time, usually in response to news stories, so this didn’t seem that shocking in comparison.

The responses he got astounded me. One was a genuine concern from a black female friend that the term ‘feminism’ has a problematic history for non-white women, which is why she prefers not to use it, and I can appreciate that. But the rest? It was like someone had unleashed the Men’s Rights Brigade. Immediately there were comments about Bad Feminists, the kind who actively discriminate against men and think all men are rapists and want to castrate them all. When Leander pointed out that these are a tiny minority (if they even exist) and that every group has its fringe extremists but that these don’t speak for the entire group, he was called out for being a hypocrite. Sexism is widespread and mainstream in our society (check any article on rape or on the appointment of a woman in a position of power for some instant evidence), but apparently it’s more important to criticise radical straw-feminists than to fix any of that. Until the movement is perfect, no one should identify with it at all. Or… something like that.

Now, these aren’t new arguments, much as their proponents might think we’re all hearing them for the first time. I’ve lost count of the number of times ‘well-meaning’ guys have approached me with horror stories about Things Feminists Have Said, expecting me to either justify extreme anti-male prejudice or admit that I’m not a real feminist because I disagree. But usually it comes out of some previous discussion, not out of the blue. These were people – men, I should add – reacting to a simple statement of support for women with shock and horror, as if Leander had said he believed passionately in killing kittens.

It’s not that I don’t get negative replies to what I say and write – I do – but somehow this felt different. Leander didn’t get dismissed as irrational, or have anyone patronise him by trying to explain ‘logically’ why he was incorrect, which is the most common response to me. His gender and his privilege protected him from that, but also added to the shock these commenters clearly felt. It was as if they’d latched onto the fact that one of their own was turning against them, and come out in force to bring him back in line. People who argue against me, however much they disagree, can usually understand where I’m coming from, even if that understanding only goes as far as ‘she’s a woman and she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about’. Not so with Leander. When I reread those comments, I can sense the confusion. Why on earth is a straight white guy like Leander supporting all this womanly nonsense?

And if the feminist-equals-woman link wasn’t clear enough, someone even commented with: ‘Don’t listen to haters Leander. You’re a strong independent woman!’. Because supporting equality for women, supporting an ideology that takes privilege away from those who have historically always had it, means you must be a woman, or at least gay and effeminate. That’s why Real Men don’t listen to feminism.

Leander is one of the most amazing guys I know, because he has such privilege, and instead of trying to cling on to it and refusing to see that he has it, he recognises it, and actively tries to make a difference. I hate everything about the assertion that men who do this aren’t masculine enough, from the gender-binary element of that idea to the way it automatically implies that being feminine or womanly is undesirable. But if we have to have it, then I want it on record that Leander is the realist Real Man I know, and I wish I knew more guys like him.

Real life is not the internet (thank goodness)

In my experience, every internet feminist likes to think that she (or he, although the male ones mostly identify as progressive bloggers, rather than specifically feminists) has something new to say about privilege. And the reason I’ve tried to stay clear of that up til now is that I don’t think that. Privilege is a tangled confusing messy concept, and my adventures in comment flame-wars have taught me that however well you think you’re explaining your point, someone is going to take issue with it. And when you’ve been in your umpteenth flame-war, and you’re hearing those tired old tropes of ‘men want to have sex with women, therefore you guys have all the power’ and ‘why are you getting upset about video games when there are children starving in Africa?’, you need something to dull the impact. Often, that means shorthand. We talk about Feminist Bingo, about Trolling and Derailing For Dummies, and Check Your Privilege. It doesn’t help us win any arguments, but then, this is the internet, we were never going to win. And it helps us feel safe and secure that we know what they’re doing, and we see through it.

All this is awesome, until you start to translate it to real life. Because, as I only started to realise recently, real life has fewer trolls than you might expect. Oh, there are definitely some: the drinking society lad at the party who wants to tell you it’s not ‘real rape’, or the EvoPsych student who goes on about how women are just naturally inferior to men. But by and large, they’re the minority. Most people I come across on a day-to-day basis don’t troll feminists sites attacking the authors with rape threats and and comments about how they’re too unattractive to be worth listening to. They don’t know what derailing is, and though they may well do it, it’s not not deliberate. And when they make arguments like ‘but what about the men?’, they’re not doing it to provoke a reaction or buy into an internet trope. They’re doing it because that is genuinely the first response to what you’re saying.

Now, that’s not a good thing, nor is it an excuse, but it’s not the total dead-end that it is online. Hard as it has been for me to accept this, the people who I chat to about rape culture and gender essentialism are often hearing my arguments for the very first time. Spend too long on the blogosphere and you start to believe that everyone knows and understands those terms, and that anyone who says otherwise is either a troll or a hopeless misogynist. But the guys I chat to at parties are neither, and sometimes all they need is a bit of time to process what I’m saying, because what you forget when you read feminist blogs is that these concepts are hard. Privilege in particular is difficult to understand. And I think in that case, the shorthand we use and the assumptions we make can often hold us back and prevent us from actually getting our point across. We’re so used to being attacked in the most horrible ways online that we assume an attack is always imminent. And while that’s completely justified (trust me, I’ve seen the comments feminist bloggers can get), it doesn’t actually help us convince anyone.

So here’s a way I’ve found that does, or at least has a better chance. I don’t use the word privilege. In progressive circles, ‘privilege’ has a very particular meaning. It means an innate advantage that society has granted someone, making certain aspects of their life easier than someone who does not have that advantage. That’s it. And everyone has privilege. One of the hardest things for me was accepting that being a non-straight woman did not cancel out the privilege I get from looking white and from coming from a well-off family. Because outside of those circles, ‘privileged’ means something else: it means wealthy entitled bastard. Seriously. Here in the UK it conjures up images of posh public schoolboys drifting effortlessly into top universities and high-paying jobs just because their father had a conversation with someone. It means never having to worry about money, and not caring about anyone who does. It means looking down on the rest of the world.

Now, I don’t deny those men are privileged, but they are few and far between. And the problem is that when you say ‘check your privilege!’ to someone, say a boy at a party, he won’t think about the fact that he never has to worry about walking home alone or whether or not he should wear makeup to a job interview. He won’t think about the lack of societal pressure for him give up work to get married and have children. He’ll just think about how hard he worked to get into university and how his parents are struggling financially right now and how he gives to charity once a month, and he’ll compare himself to The Privileged Bastards he knows so much about. He’s nothing like them! And so assumption that he’s privileged feels like a ridiculous and utterly unfair attack that has come out of nowhere from the mouth of some crazy angry feminist. And put in those terms, it kinda is.

((How do I know this? Because, I’m now ashamed to say, I spent a good six months convinced that anyone who called me out on my privilege was overreacting and just looking for an excuse to dismiss my opinion. I felt personally attacked, because couldn’t they see that I wasn’t a privileged person? I was a woman, for goodness sake. And I worked really hard to get into uni. They were being ridiculous. Clearly.))

So instead of using that word, a word that seems so obvious to me, I pause, breathe, and talk in examples and analogies instead. I talk about being bombarded with so many messages that a woman’s only value is her beauty that I always have to worry at interviews whether I’m being judged on my looks or my intellect, and if what I’m wearing one day might ‘send the wrong message’. I talk about always having to wonder whether it really is too late for the 10 minute walk home in the dark. I talk about having experienced so much belief that women really ought to be more domesticated that ‘woman, get back in the kitchen’ jokes can never be funny for me, regardless of intent.

And almost without fail, the guys I’m talking to look at me in an interested way and say ‘I’d never thought of that’. And that’s when I turn round and explain: that’s privilege. The ability to not even have to worry about the things that make up such a significant part of my life. I know you’d never thought about it before, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work incredible hard for what you’ve achieved. But you have the privilege of not even realising you have this advantage over me.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it takes a lot more discussion, and the temptation for me to scream that this is my life, damn it, can’t you just accept that? becomes almost unbearable. But mostly, I get somewhere, even if it’s not exactly where I wanted to be. It takes time and it is hard and I often wonder whether the effort  is worth it. But then I think about how long it took for me to get here, and how relieved and grateful I am that I did. And then one of those guys texts me to say he called out one of his friends on objectifying schoolgirls in short skirts, and I think yes.

I mean, I totally am a crazy angry feminist, but I don’t need them to know that.

Dipping my toes in the murky waters of privilege

So far on this blog, I haven’t talked much about privilege, or rather Privilege, with its capital letter. You know, that boring tedious thing that those boring tedious (not to mention sexually frustrated) feminists keep harping on about. And that’s because I’m still working out how to handle the privilege issue, and what the best way to talk about it without alienating just about everyone is. So this isn’t really an entry about privilege, but rather an account of exactly what happened on Friday night, which just happens to involve a striking if mundane example of male privilege.

If you’ve been reading this blog semi-regularly, you might have read On being sexually ‘responsible’ and what that actually means. The story of that one is that the condom split, I went to get the morning-after-pill, and it was all awesome and I’m not pregnant and isn’t it great that such medication is freely available in the UK. It’s all good. Except on Friday, it happened again. Well, not quite the same thing, but basically massive condom fail. Was it Leander’s fault? Personally, I’m inclined to say yes. I mean, he didn’t do anything wrong. He used it exactly how you were taught in year 9 sex ed classes (again, if you’re British or went to a British school). Opening it carefully, putting it on before any penetration occurred, and all that jazz. But somewhere along the way it broke or came off or something, and because of the logistics of sex, I’m really not in a position to notice these things. I thought – and I still think – that it’s the penetrating-partner’s responsibility to check that the condom is fine, and not to get too swept up to allow something like that to happen.  Leander said that he was doing everything he could and it really wasn’t his fault, that sometimes these things just happen. I don’t know. I am definitely wary about using those condoms again.

But whose fault it may have been isn’t the issue. The issue is that immediately afterwards, I was a little freaked out. Definitely irritated. And what was Leander’s response? To make an inane joke about it, and say ‘It’s fine, you can go to the pharmacy tomorrow’.

And I spun around at him in anger. Do you think it’s that simple? The magic off-switch in pill form, that miraculously makes everything okay? A quick-fix and then it’s like it never happened? I’ve been quite good about not getting angry recently, and keeping my emotions under control, but I was furious. Don’t you get what taking the pill is actually like? He looked blankly at me. First there’s the anxiety. Until I’m in the pharmacy, swallowing it down with water, my brain will be convincing my body that it’s already pregnant. And then I take it and I feel instantly sick. Whether it’s the medication or just adrenaline, it makes me feel nauseous. Then the after-effects. It’s like taking twenty-one doses of the regular pill at once. Headaches and mood swings and more nausea. Plus it fucks up your menstrual cycle completely, so you have no idea where you are, meaning that it’s impossible to know for sure without taking a pregnancy test (it’s only 70% effective anyway), and don’t even get me started on what that feels like. I will spend the next two weeks at least convinced I am pregnant, feeling sick and emotional with constant low-level anxiety, while you just go on utterly oblivious, feeling all smug and superior because you ‘did the right thing’ by driving me to the pharmacy.

I may have added that it was his fault I was in this mess (even though that’s debatable). And there may have been a lot more swearing. But I calmed down enough to look at him, and I asked if he got it now. And he just stared at me. He said he hadn’t known any of that. He had never stopped to think what taking a massive dose of hormones might actually feel like, the toll it’s likely to take even on a young and healthy body. No one had ever taught him any of this, but that’s not much of an excuse, because anyone who knows anything about hormones and biology should be able to work out that this stuff is not pleasant. Oh, it’s truly fantastic that it exists and it’s a hundred thousand times better than having to get an abortion. But it’s hardly nice. I knew that, even before I took it for the first time. (For the record, I have taken it five times over four years, which might sound like a lot, until you consider how much sex I’ve had in those four years, and then it sounds like a miracle.)

The point is (and this is what really made me angry), Leander had never had to think about this stuff. For him it really was that simple: condom fails, take girl to pharmacy, girl does not get pregnant. End of. And that in itself is, to me, a striking example of privilege. It’s not that he meant to upset me. He didn’t mean to belittle the experience or make it sound like my emotions and well-being didn’t matter, but that’s how it came across because he’d never had to stop and think before, so what was blatantly obvious to me needed step-by-step explaining for him.

I’m not angry anymore. We talked it through, he took me to the pharmacy, and it’s all good. (Though of course, I won’t know for sure for another couple of weeks, but if, heaven forbid, it turns out to not be all good, I’ll be writing up that experience on here too.) While I still think he should have been more careful at the time, I understand how difficult these things are, and if I still resent him from not having to worry about this the way I do, I know that’s not his fault. Also, he’s promised to buy me a slice of cheesecake every time I get anxious in the next two weeks, and I really do love cheesecake.

But I still think this is a good example of how someone can be totally well-meaning and rationally completely onboard with feminist issues and the concept of privilege, and still make these kinds of mistakes in practice. Because it wasn’t enough for Leander to know that he has privilege (he does) and to try to check it (he does that too) – there are still occasions where he slips up and genuinely doesn’t realise he has until it’s explained to him. Does that make him a bad person? Not at all, because when I did explain it, he listened and accepted what I was saying. The problem is when well-meaning people can’t accept that they may have made some mistake and get defensive about it, because they think I’m accusing them of being a terrible person, and don’t I know that they fully support women’s rights (or LGBT rights or racial equality, or whatever it is), and would never say or do anything to hurt anyone?

And the truth is, I do know that, but that’s not a bulletproof defence against ever saying something sexist or offensive, and if they’re not going to listen to me when I try to explain why what they’ve said is wrong, how are they ever going to learn?

Leander is way ahead of almost every man I’ve ever met, but he’s still learning. I know I am too.

Fuck, I really hope I’m not pregnant.