November 16, 2014

My Conflicted Relationship With Feminism

I am, of course, a feminist. What sort of feminist? I believe very strongly in gender equality, I advocate for gender equality and I am interested in changing the ways that culture and socioeconomics influence society.

Having the lived experience of a woman’ and identifying as male, the situation is of course more complex than just that.

Unfortunately, at the University of Melbourne, where I went, a lot of the feminist culture was based around a particular brand of radical feminism championed by Sheila Jeffreys and her acolytes that was anti-male, biphobic, transphobic, intellectually lacking in integrity (she would mark down any essays that conflicted with her world view) and pretty much awful. Men were the enemy and hanging around men meant that you were also the enemy. Gay men? The enemy because they are not into women and are men. Bisexual women? The enemy because they are not real’ queers and take the easy’ route by being with men. Trans women? The enemy because they were born with male privilege’ and are not real’ women and are men trying to invade women’s spaces’. Trans men? The enemy because they are gender traitors who seek male privilege’. Genderqueer people? The enemy because they reject the label female’.

The only good people by this definition are non-trans lesbian separatists. There are no other good people because everyone else is a pawn and acolyte of the patriarchy, which only serves to benefit men and compliant, submissive non-men.

There were lesbians who pretty much refused to speak to me because most of my friends in the queer groups at university were men.

This is a brand of extreme ideology that thankfully does not represent most feminists, or certainly not most feminists I know.

Sexism by necessity cuts both ways- by which I mean that traditional’ Western society (and other societies) create problems for everyone regardless of gender when they treat people differently because of their bits or chromosomes or hormonal status. In Western society in particular this has generally meant less opportunities, legal rights and power for women while men who do not conform to traditionally masculine’ or macho’ stereotypes also get heavily discriminated against. An example that definitely cuts both ways is the document on parental leave at NSW Health I saw today- women get 14 weeks paid leave while same-sex partners and men get 1 week; this reinforces patriarchal ideas about childrearing in more than one way, both by implying that the woman, who is the child-bearer, is the natural’ parent, should be the one taking the leave, and that men or non-child-bearing partners are not entitled to take time off to take care of children which puts financial pressure on them to continue to work.

Gender discrimination and difference in Western’ society was probably at its peak just after the Industrial Revolution for the following reason: men left their homes to work while women stayed at home. Prior to this, people ran their livelihoods from their homes and so the work was shared, including child rearing.

In addition, the nuclear family’ itself is an invention of the post-World War 2 period. Prior to this, the extended family was much more involved in each other’s lives, also in terms of child rearing and providing support.

Feminism- a movement that in the West grew out of both a response to the industrial revolution as well as wartime work shortages- provided the groundwork for much greater flexibility in gender roles. In some ways economic circumstance pushes women into the economy but honestly the main thing is intellectual stimulation, the feeling of agency, independence and power that comes from working. Working is very empowering. The ability to achieve and be recognised for one’s hard work is empowering. Achieving a proper work/life balance for men is empowering. Individual choice is empowering. Prior to feminist theory society did not deconstruct ideas about gender or gender roles. Gender roles were about biological sex which were about how things just are’. We owe a huge debt to feminism for giving us- all of us- choice and options that we never had before. Feminism laid the groundwork for not just gender equality rights but also gay/queer rights and transgender rights.

The story of course is a little more complex than that- lesbians and bisexual women were often excluded from mainstream feminism and transgender people were and are often excluded from both mainstream feminism and gay groups. It was not long before feminism itself broke into various different ideological strains, some with a great deal of rigour and others with the intellectual rigour of an Ayn Rand novel.

The thing is, society does not change in step or simultaneously. There are sections of society in which entitled, rude, boorish chauvinist men go around asking their’ women to make some pie’ while acting like turds and demanding sex. You would have to be blind to not know that that happens in parts of Australia. In some ways, Australia is a pretty backwards country when it comes to attitudes to gender equality in the developed West. A lot of professional institutions are still run by the typical white, rich, old-boys’ club’. I remember I used to get a lot of shit- from both men and women- because I was in a male dominated medical speciality (surgery) and that this would mean I couldn’t have kids” - these statements despite the fact that I was single and have no particular plans to have children, and, well, as it turns out I am a mostly-straight trans guy who would really rather never get pregnant and would probably rather adopt. My mother, a GP, has had plenty of teenage female patients who insist that they must’ get pregnant because that is what their friends/family/mums did and that that is the only’ option. And then you just have to look at Australian media treatment of rape victims. Simply appalling.

On the other hand, you look some of my friends. Some of them are proud feminists (perhaps feminists’) who post stuff that is unhelpful, insensitive and frankly anti-male but also not particularly aligned with a logically consistent framework. I do not consider this to be true feminism. It’s pop culture feminism’ that sells magazines by calling men dumb, single-minded, sex-addicted predators. I do not think it engages men or encourages dickheads to behave better. It alienates even people like me, i.e. allies and people who (especially as I am pre-transition and perceived as female) are affected by gender inequality.

Pop-culture feminism is a vile brand of feminism’ that is exemplified by the editorial policies of Jezebel and the particularly obnoxious xoJane.

Sex positivity, advocating for the rights of sex workers, sexually active women and the choice to be sexually active without being demonised or called a slut’ or receiving rape threats is incredibly important and something I am behind completely and utterly as someone who has been on the receiving end of abuse. But this form of sex positivity’ is less about empowering women to make choices and more about sexualising women, using it to sell ad space, creating drama and disempowering the concept of choice. The sexualisation of trans women on these websites while claiming to be trans friendly is particularly offensive. Here is an article about a trans woman who was the victim of intimate partner violence and happened to be a sex worker and found it hard to ask for help due to perception of trans sex workers. So the article contains sexualised, hot’ pictures of her. Because being a successful trans person is about passing’ and being attractive’ and of course it is totally appropriate to have sexualised pictures of victims of domestic violence on an article on domestic violence.

Certain forms of fat activism’ also, instead of concentrating on the completely important and legitimate issue of discrimination and harassment of overweight and obese people, actively downplay health risks and concerns in what is a worldwide health epidemic and advocate against what for many is life-saving treatment and/or surgery. How is advocating for poor health outcomes for women feminism? Especially when it involves shaming people who are genetically thin- often because they are non-white- or attacking those who talk about the health risks of obesity and claiming that the health profession and big pharma’ are involved in a sexist conspiracy to harm women? How is withholding healthcare for ideological reasons anything other than wrong?

Here is another thing: in the men versus women’ articles, why are gender-non-conforming people never mentioned? Why do people mouth off about men being awful predators then when I take exception say that I am different’ in a way that implies not being a real’ man? Why is there a lot of talk amongst pop-culture feminists about wanting a real man’ in ways that imply an unpleasant machismo? Why do people who are card-carrying feminists argue with me and say why can’t you be a lesbian rather than a man” in a way that implies that I am choosing to be a gender traitor with male privilege and am somehow disrespecting butch women?

A particular brand of Islamophobia and racism and religious bigotry manifests itself via feminism’ as well. While gender inequality must be critiqued and I believe that no culture is immune to criticism and evaluation, the idea that everyone outside the Western hegemony is an awful sexist that comes from an awfully sexist culture is simply false. Sexism is a complex issue. There are lots of different things people do to be sexist. Gender roles are often very rigid in developing countries, and in many places the idea of homosexuality or transgender status is not even recognised. I think it is probably a no-brainer to point out that many countries have poor legal protections for women, poor access to abortion and reproductive choices, poor access to health and education and an ingrained culture of dangerous sexism and high sexual assault rates. However, the West has appalling rates of female enrolment in science, technology and mathematics whereas in India and Sri Lanka it is close to 50%. Women are grossly under-represented in academia in the West. In Iran, ⅔ of professors are women. In the 60’s, the only professional job options offered to women in the West were teaching, nursing and secretarial work. In the 1910’s, my great-grandmother was working as a headmistress and in the 1930’s, my grandmother considered training as a doctor in Sri Lanka. There are genuine issues in gender inequality outside the West. But the use of accusations of evil sexist culture (‘they abuse their women, we do not’) to further a racist agenda is abhorrent. The same media outlets such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun that victim-blame Australian rape victims as I recall were out in force condemning a Indian gang-rape and murder as an example of sexist Indian culture’ while conveniently ignoring the fact that Australia has the 2nd highest rate of sexual assault in the OECD.

The other thing that is particularly offensive and destructive is the downplaying of the experience of male victims of crimes such as rape or sexual harassment or for that matter sexism. The politicisation in general of male victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and child abuse is something that angers me. On the one hand you get the most prevalent (but thankfully reducing) attitude to male victims of laughing and victim-blaming and calling them not man enough’ or claiming they enjoyed’ it. On another hand you get some so-called-feminists who minimise the existence and experience of male victims. And on yet another hand you get the so-called-”Men’s Rights Activists” (a more extreme splinter group from the Men’s Movement, a genuinely helpful movement which I would align myself with that is aligned with feminism and gender equality) who appropriate the experience of victims for a political agenda which blames women and feminism for all the ills that society inflicts upon men.

The pop-culture feminists, radical separatist feminists and the male assholes are two ends of a destructive spectrum. Most people are somewhere in-between. Most women believe in gender equality. Because of perceived anti-male sentiment many are feminists who do not call themselves feminists (no, I am not including Julie Bishop in here). After a certain age and some life experience I think many (not all) men grow up too and a lot of them become more aware of and supportive of gender equality.

There is certainly a lot of collective cultural guilt among more self-aware men about the actions of evil men- rapists, spouse-murderers, paedophiles, chauvinists and pick up artists’ like Julien Blanc among other people. There is also probably some defensiveness and fatigue about the whole issue. At which point you get statements like the tone-deaf not all men’ hashtag- some of which is men who wish to stand in solidarity with women by giving a voice to men who are not assholes, some of which is defensive men who feel that they are being lumped in amongst evil men. It was, in the context of women pointing out the systematic abuses that women face, an inappropriate and poorly timed response, but came from a point of view that has been misinterpreted somewhat. Men benefit in the public and work and legal spheres significantly because of a systematic problem in society. Men would do well to acknowledge that. But the discrimination cuts both ways in different ways and the systematic ignoring in pop culture of helpful and passionate male allies or silencing them does disenfranchise men and is completely counter-productive.

I honestly do not know how to talk to pop-culture feminists about misandry and double standards. I really do believe that everyone deserves a minimum degree of respect and decency as a human being regardless of gender, race, biological sex, sexual orientation, religion, culture and lifestyle choices.

At the same time, men need to pull up other men when they are being sexist and take an active role in improving things for everyone rather than letting women and gender non-conforming people be discriminated against and harassed. The additional power and privileges in the public sphere should be used responsibly. More people need to stand up. I remember being the only person to try to intervene when a guy was punching the wall next to his completely terrified girlfriend on Swanston Street, one of the main streets in the Melbourne CBD on a Friday night. Plenty of guys standing around in that semicircle just watching an act of public domestic violence. When the guy threatened to beat the crap out of me (a 5’4 woman’), once again, no-one did anything. Not long ago, a tall, muscular lesbian was repeatedly punching her girlfriend in the face at the main nightclub in the town I live in. One of my friends (a fairly small and slight guy) was the only one who did anything. None of the security guards intervened. No men intervened. No women intervened. Assault is illegal. Domestic violence is illegal. We know that same-sex relationships are a neglected area in terms of reporting of IPV and people being given help, yet we just stand by and let physical violence happen in public?

Men need to help, and be able to help, in terms of working out what makes chauvinists, sexists and asshole men tick and then coming up with practical solutions that help everyone (telling women they have to work harder or telling gender-non-conforming men to just suck it up’ is insulting).

And more feminists need to work towards empowering choices, different identities, working with and not against people from non-Western cultures and gender equality. Real gender equality.

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