------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish

Diary of a Goldfish

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Peak Beard & The Universal Principles of Body-Shaming.

I began to write this post some weeks ago, when the world was shaken by the news that we (or at least white Westerners) had reached Peak Beard. I was busy and it got abandoned. Then this weekend was Eurovision and I decided to return to the subject.

We watched Eurovision with my folks this year, and thus were subject to my mother's beard commentary. My mother doesn't like facial hair. She seems particularly offended by a beard on a good-looking young man because it's such a waste. Eurovision featured lots of good-looking young people with beards; beards remain very fashionable. And thus we sat through two hours of

"I like this song but not the beard!"
"I'd vote for him if he'd only shave!"

and inevitably,

"But she'd be so beautiful if she didn't have that beard!"

Then yesterday, I heard of Russian male homophobes shaving their beards off in order to defend their fragile masculinity against the full-bearded influence of Eurovision victor Conchita Wurst.

One of several fascinating facts about men's facial hair (or lack thereof) is that the subject, when raised, provokes just as much alarm and disdain as discussion of women's grooming and appearance.

Every week, newspapers and magazines will have a news story or opinion piece about women's pubic, underarm or leg hair, women's body-shape, fitness or fatness, make-up, cosmetic surgery, bras, high-heels, corsetry and so forth. Every week, newspapers and magazines can guarantee a hoard of men and women clicking through to confirm and often share their opinions about the disgusting, unfeminine, unfeminist, shallow and lazy choices that women make about their appearance.

We've talked about this a lot - many of those articles talk about this, despite the fact that they often repeat the same messages (don't judge me for behaving as everyone should!) and play host to the same vitriol below the line. However, while there's no doubt that there's a massive gender imbalance in whose bodies and choices are being scrutinised, men's facial hair shows us that there's also something universal and ungendered going on.

Looking through the articles, comments and Twitter chat about Peak Beard (the idea that beardless men appear more attractive in a world of beard ubiquity and vice versa) we see that

1. Exactly the same arguments are used for and against facial hair as are used for and against any choice a woman might make about her own appearance. You'd think that that an argument about beards would be dynamically different from, for example, an argument about high heeled shoes. But they're not. The only difference is that there's no unfeminist choice to be made about beards, although feminism is blamed for men shaving - apparently, men who shave have been rendered fearful of their own masculinity (apart from Russian homophobes). Men who don't shave have the more rational fear of sharp objects.

2. The same arguments are made both for and against any given behaviour. Shaving isn't healthy; it causes rashes, nicks and dryness, whereas beards are breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Shaving is part of being a real man, a rite of passage to young men, the minimal requirement for smartness, whereas beards are a sign of masculinity; a real man is a bearded man and men who shave are afraid of growing up. See also women's pubic hair, dieting, bras etc..

3. Almost all arguments originate from a personal preference; I like my beard, I like my smooth face, I prefer a bearded man, I prefer a smooth face. But it has to be extrapolated to some universal truth; "Sorry guys, but women just don't fancy men with beards. None of the men I've dated in the past yea had beards. So if you ever want to get laid again, have a shave!"

And here, we begin to see what's going on. Folks are anxious. Folks are defensive about their own behaviour or preferences. There must be a right way. Newspaper columns, magazines and advertisers of all variety certainly suggest this: Do things the right way. Buy our products to avoid humiliationThe recent Veet advert suggested that if a thin female model has 24 hour's hair growth on her legs, she might as well be an overweight, hirsute bloke with a high-pitched feminine voice. Which brings me to

4. Cultural tropes around nature, gender and sexuality are then wheeled in as if they were facts. There are real men, and real women - all straight and cis gender. Real men and real women behave in a certain way and desire certain things in their partners. People who deviate are not real; women who don't fancy bearded men are lesbians, are afraid of real men and will die alone. Some men (with or without beards) talk with utter disdain about women who might not fancy them, as if any pognophobe is going to think, "Brian from Skegness thinks I'm a silly bitch for not fancying men like him. How could I have been so wrong?!"

Some straight women are compelled to share fairly graphic detail about how they like to tug on a beard during sex, or ask their boyfriends to shave mid-way because they can feel the hairs growing. Worse are the ones who are effectively negging; "Most women run screaming when they see a bearded man, but I'm able to see past that. What do looks matter? Leave all those scornful women who will laugh at you, humiliate you in front of your friends and be rude to your mother to those cleanly shaven men! Come here, beardy!"

Exactly the same thing happens with women's appearance. There's no shortage of straight men lining up for medals for their courageous tolerance of slight variations from our cultural model of conventional beauty (for a recent essay-length cringe-athon, see In Defence of Hairy Women).

It's quite easy for me to write about beards because (a) I cannot grow one, (b) nobody would expect me to and (c) I really have no particular opinion about them. Some beards look good, some not so much (a fashionable shape on an unfashionable face*) and some are quite funny (our Latin teacher, an eccentric and very skeletal-looking man had a long goatie beard that curved dramatically to one side, despite constant ponderous smoothing). People should do what they like - or what they can; some men cannot grow a beard, others struggle to shave.

It would be much harder for me to talk about female grooming. It shouldn't be too hard for me as a woman who, in being attracted to other women, knows that there are few universal turn-offs around these matters. It shouldn't be too hard for me as woman who, being a conscientious feminist hippie-type, has conducted long-term experiments in things like growing or removing leg, underarm and pubic hair. I have worn a lot of make-up and none at all for many years. I even stopped using any commercial products on my person (apart from soap for handwashing) for about eighteen months.

The only thing I've ever dismissed outright are those Spanx-type magic pants that squeeze everything together? I bought some, I put them on and then I cut them off. 

However, it is almost impossible to talk about these issues in complete neutrality. And in the absence of such neutrality, it seems that culture has primed us to get defensive (I wouldn't leave the house without my Spanx. But you can't expect miracles, you whale!). And I think the beard thing demonstrates that this is nothing inherent to women, or even women's conditioning. We all need to get over the fact that other people like, want and do different things to ourselves and it's all perfectly okay.

(yeah, but if I work harder on that last sentence, I'll never post this).

* By an unfashionable face, I don't mean an ugly face, just one that hasn't got this week's bone-structure and colouring. Vaguely related to this, here is a great piece about being a young brown guy whose now-fashionable beardedness has previously been a factor in his experience of racism.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Feeling, Acting or Being A Creep

Having tweeted a link to this excellent post from Dr Nerdlove: Socially Awkward isn't an Excuse, I entered into a silly circular argument with a friend. My friend expressed confusion and frustration; despite her best efforts, she was always perceived as creepy whenever she had told anyone that she found them attractive. Nobody had explicitly told her she was creepy, so quite foolishly, I entered into an argument about whether this inference was a reasonable one. I should know by now that forcing someone  to argue for their own deficiency doesn't lift anyone's mood.

But the subsequent discussion made me think about the difference between feeling, acting or being a creep.

Feeling like a Creep

There should be a term which is the opposite - the unhealthy polar opposite - to sexual entitlement. Feeling like a creep is close; regarding oneself as physically and mentally disgusting, considering one's existence as a sexual being, an imposition on the rest of the world.

Radiohead's Creep was my theme song from its release in 1993, when I was twelve years old, throughout the following decade or so. I felt that I was a creep, I was a weirdo. WTF was I doing there? I didn't belong there.

There are lots of us who approach sexual maturity in the belief that there's something wrong with our sexuality. Not necessarily wrong as in sinful - although that's often in the mix - but wrong as in damaged or damaging. Words frequently associated with homosexual desire in the media and my household included pervert and predatory. It was more or less against the law for a teacher to discuss the subject of my particular sexuality throughout my high school career.

At school I knew, for sure, how any female object of my desire or affection would feel if she knew, because we did have one out lesbian in our year group; a very tall, dramatic young women whose name wasn't Petronella Conquest but it was pretty close. The worry was, what if she fancied you? After all, girl's a lesbian, she could fancy any of us. And then what? How disgusting would that be? Not that I ever heard any rumour of this girl even flirting with anyone. The fact of her attraction - the fact of her potential attraction - was enough for cries of disgust and outrage to fill the form room. And Petronella was slimmer, more confident, more sophisticated than I and didn't have spots.

So even though I kept everything firmly under wraps, I felt like a creep, like many closeted queer kids in high school; I felt that my desire was predatory, deceptive, a betrayal of my friendships.

And before I got the chance to leave school, set out into the world and find my people, I got sick and grew to like my body an awful lot less. Believing my body to be disgusting made this ten times worse, as if I had no right to sexual pleasure, even in fantasy. In this context, I got together with my first husband, who made me feel better by tolerating me as I was (agreeing that my body was, in fact, quite gruesome), then treating me with the disgust and contempt that I thought I deserved. Until I didn't.

I don't know if straight women are often made to feel creepy - I've not really heard anyone describe that. Unwanted, unloveable or ridiculous, undoubtedly, but I don't know if straight women ever think that their attraction could, if revealed, make someone's skin crawl.  This is how I felt, and how I continued to feel - on and off - for most of my twenties, whether it was about the women or the men I was attracted to; they were all much more beautiful in body, mind and soul than I was. I was the haggard lumpen troll in the shadows, looking on with lecherous eyes.

Nobody should feel that way. It is never true, whoever you are, whatever you look like, whoever you fancy. Even if you fancy someone genuinely inappropriate - it's what you do (or please, don't do) about it that counts.

Acting or Coming Across Like a Creep.

People can come across like a creep inadvertently for three reasons; the things they say and do, the past experiences of the person they're approaching and prejudice.

Everyone - not just the socially awkard - can fluff up in small and big ways that sometimes leads to upset and awkwardness, especially when it comes to flirtation, or conversations that might be read that way. Add alcohol into the mix and things can go very wrong.

My own gaffs have never been terribly dramatic, just being needy and over-keen at times when I've been desperately lonely. But I do remember one due to abject exhaustion: When saying goodnight to a new friend at the end of an evening, I kissed her on each cheek, as the French do. No idea what possessed me -I hadn't done this since the two weeks I spent in France as a child. Then I hugged her, just for good measure. It wasn't an excuse for physical contact - it was as if the contents of my brain had been largely emptied out such that I no longer knew how people of my own culture say goodbye to one another.

However, the effects of social mistakes are usually very short-lived. They can occasionally damage relationships, but this is because of awkwardness, embarrassment, confusion and annoyance - not because someone feels threatened or intimidated in any prolonged way. If you realise you've made a mistake, you apologise (if that doesn't compound things) and try to put it right. There's no argument about what happened. Nobody's left looking over their shoulder all the way home that night.

Things get a little bit worse when others have past experiences of harassment and sexual aggression. Sometimes, an act can seem creepy because it bears some similarity to other acts of sexual aggression. For example, if a woman routinely experiences sexual harassment at the bus stop, then she may prefer that nobody ever speaks to her at the bus stop, because however friendly it may seem at first, she's seen it blow up in her face before. All men run the risk of seeming creepy talking to women they don't know well. I'd still say it's worth trying to talk to one another (well I think so, but I have never lived in a city).

However, sometimes we seem creepy just because of who we are.  Sometimes, this is about the big prejudices: homophobia, disablism, classism and racism can all make people perceive others as creepy. In movies, I have seen German, Eastern European and Russian accents, stereotypically Arab features, effeminacy in men and butchness in women, plus impairment - especially albinism, facial scars, withered hands, limps and so forth - all used to signpost that a character is sinister. Also, men who are very thin, very fat or very short are often seen this way, as if non-standard bodies render any sexual feelings they have something depraved or predatory (in fat, old and short women, sexual desire is rendered comical rather than threatening).

The little course in cognitive poetics we're doing has talked about the personification of Uriah Heap - the literary archetype of creep - but when you reread the text, the greatest part of his initial creepiness is the fact he is very pale, thin, ugly and fidgetty. He is a kiss-ass who behaves very badly, but that comes much later; at first, we hate him mostly for what he looks like.

Some adult straight men are nervous of gay men, for the same reason my classmates were nervous of Petronella. Disabled people are perhaps especially vulnerable to this because we are often seen as sexless - to assert our sexuality, even in the most gently flirtatious remark, might make us appear to be something other than what we seemed - like the cherub-faced child in the horror movie that suddenly says something knowing about tracker mortgages.

Then there are the lesser prejudices. I grew up with the idea that men in long grey raincoats are creepy, even though I've never encountered a creepy man in a long grey raincoat. Some people find goths creepy, as well as punks and geeks, horror buffs, taxidermists, antique dealers, folk who love reptiles and spiders, butchers, abattoir workers, criminologists, Daleks, undertakers, Bronies or adult Beliebers (okay, so maybe they are).

The trouble is, with all of the above, we can't ever be sure why someone else might think us creepy. We can rarely be sure that they even do. We just have to watch our behaviour, because that's the one thing we're responsible for and the one thing we can change if we mess up.

However, because we're all decent people, we accept rejection. Romantic or social rejection, whether grounded in high ideals, the lowest form of bigotry or pure whim, is not something that can be argued with. Real creeps don't get that. We do.

On Being A Creep.

Being a creep is about entitlement. It's not always entitlement to sex; it is sometimes about romantic attention or social power, but there's often a sexual element. Entitlement doesn't necessarily coincide with social confidence, but creepiness (meant here to mean that underhand, passive aggressive strain of sexual aggression) often coincides with a sort of arrogance of the underdog. Doctor Nerdlove focuses on this as an issue within geek culture, but Eleanor Brown tweeted this newspaper cutting, which demonstrates the same kind of thing elsewhere:

It reads: Rush-Hour Crush. Love (well, lust) is all around us, as is proven by the messages left by our commuter cupids.

Cappuchino One Sugar. If you're the girl I think you are, I'm often in the queue behind you at Letchworth Garden City station's coffee shop. I've tried flirting but you're too busy trying to get the attention of the guy behind the counter. I'm training to be a barrister, you're ignoring me for a barista. Please turn around so we can discuss my briefs.
Shiny Shoes, English Breakfast Tea.

This chap is a creep. He is addressing a young woman who, despite his efforts, demonstrates zero interest in him. In Shiny Shoes' universe, this is not right or fair. The girl is wrong. What she needs is:
  • To be told that she is making a ridiculous mistake.
  • To be shown he is deserving of her attention, because of the job he does/ is training for.
  • To be encouraged with a very sexual joke. The law is a rich ground for puns. He could have said, "Turn around and judge for yourself." or "Let's discuss this case." or even "You've got a lovely a posteriori." which at least keeps things to a level of outer clothing and appearance. 
Notice the lack of compliments. The guy doesn't even offer to buy her a coffee. 

Now this ad is unlikely to have deeply upset the young woman. In my mind, the woman and the barista both read it, their shared mortification brings them together and this cutting will eventually be pasted in the back of their wedding album, so they can tell the story to their kids.

However, some people act this way in the same room, when you are alone with them or in private conversation on-line, and sometimes while making physical contact with you. The message is always the same; 
My sexual, romantic or social desires are right. I am deserving of love, sexual gratification, friendship and status. People should pay attention to me. People should want to be with me, on my terms. People should laugh at my jokes and be flattered by my attentions.  
Your feelings are misguided or you're fooling yourself about how you really feel. The boundaries you've established - by drawing a line, rejecting me, or ignoring me in the coffee shop queue - are flexible. Your verbal and non-verbal communication is open to any interpretation I like. If you react badly, it is because there's something wrong with you, you stupid bitch.
Some people have argued that the use of the word creep might be regarded as the male equivalent of slut, and that calling a man a creep is shaming him for his sexuality. This is not the case at all. The big difference is that the word slut, even in its more pejorative sense, does not describe someone who is imposing her sexuality on others. She might be a corrupting influence (according to the spirit of this slur), but she doesn't coerce.

Meanwhile, women can be creepy. Women can force lingering physical contact on people who didn't ask for it - I've seen women plant themselves on men's laps without introduction, I've had women touch me far more than I'd like. Women can react very badly to rejection, become angry or simply ignore what is being said to them. Women can believe that they are magically worthy and deserving of sexual attention, love or social power. And I don't think women are any less capable than men of arguing that the people who reject them are at fault; they're shallow, prejudiced, lying about their sexuality, or are capable of handling a real woman.

Yet out in a world where men tend to have greater social capital, are more physically threatening and are often sold narratives where all good men, including the underdogs, are rewarded with female attention, the worst of this behaviour is most often committed by men.

Thanks to Lisa, Mary & The Morningstar for the discussion about this.

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

What it means to be Cisgender.

Obviously, everything to do with human identity is socially constructed. When we use labels to identify ourselves, we're sometimes talking about things we feel very deeply, sometimes about things we see purely politically and sometimes, it's really more about the way other people see us.

So for example, my sexuality is integral to who I am, far more than my gender: I cannot conceive a version of myself with a different sexuality, whereas in almost all dreams where I am not myself, I am a man. Being disabled is very important to many experiences I have had and I strongly identify with other disabled people fighting discrimination, but I am perceived as and therefore feel more or less disabled in different contexts - it is even conceivable, though very unlikely, that one day I won't be disabled any more. Being white is something I am aware of in many different contexts - probably mostly in terms of consuming fiction, where this one aspect of my identity is treated as not only normal but best (stories have to be about white people!).

Being a cis woman is not an integral part of my identity - I rarely think about being cis at all - but it is a privilege I have and am aware of. Meanwhile, Glosswitch has been wrestling with what it means to be cis:
"To break the stranglehold gender stereotypes have over human experience – distorting and restricting our experience of ourselves – should not involve telling whole swathes of humankind that they “match” their gender. [...] Matching cis maleness – the identity most closely associated with “being human” – must feel like winning the gender lottery. It’s not the same if you inhabit a female body. Who’d want the values associated with that? Yet that is what cis women are told they are stuck with."
This isn't how I see it at all.

Being cis gender means I am not transgender. It certainly doesn't mean that I, as a woman, am everything that a woman is supposed to be within my culture - or even any of those things. It doesn't say very much about the clothes I wear, the way I think, my hobbies and interests or my sexuality. This doesn't even attempt to say anything about my genes, genitals or reproductive potential (Most cis women, most of the time, cannot get pregnant. A significant minority of cis women can never get pregnant.)

All my being cis means is that (a) the word woman is the best way I have of describing my gender and (b) this coincides with the way that other people always have described me. Thus cis, on the side of, as opposed to trans, across. This doesn't mean that a trans person and I can't have a very great deal in common - including shared experiences of gender non-conformity and sexuality, psychological dysmorphia issues as well as some crossover between trans and disabled experiences, especially while transgender remains heavily pathologised. But I am not trans and perhaps crucially, I have never received the negative treatment a trans person receives.

It is quite ludicrous to imagine that human beings might be divided between those people who feel comfortable in their assigned gender - along with all the accompanying cultural baggage - and those who belong to another gender altogether (presumably, embracing the accompanying cultural baggage of their true gender). There's perhaps genderqueer in between, and here, the definitions are looser - many cis folk might well identify as genderqueer given greater personal freedom and knowledge of this possibility. However, this still doesn't mean that everyone - or anyone - left in the cis category would match their assigned gender. Gender is a social construct. Human beings use social constructs and are very heavily influenced by social constructs, but we also strain against them, constantly, because they don't bloody fit.

There are obvious parallels with straight folk feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being straight. There are reasons why they might, besides the old "The word for what I am is normal." nonsense (the usual objection to cis, along with "I've never heard that word before so I'm determined to be insulted by it"). A woman may be exclusively attracted to men, but completely reject the norms of heterosexual relationships that her culture presents to her. She may watch romantic movies and not recognise the role assigned to her within relationships; she may reject monogamy or marriage, she may not be attracted to small, quiet, bookish men in a culture that tells her to fancy macho hunks.

But straight is still the most likely way of describing her sexuality. You can still be straight and not fit into a world where the dynamics, depth and even timing of heterosexual relationships is strictly prescribed.  You can still be straight and experience discrimination based on your deviance from hetronormative roles, just as almost all cis women, at one time or another, have been made to feel that we are not living up to expectations of womanhood.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

It's okay to call Tom Daley bisexual, even if he isn't.

Young Olympic diving hero Tom Daley talked publicly yesterday about being in a relationship with a man, provoking a huge variety of responses in my Twitter stream. These ranged from the romantic realism of "Oh good, I fancy Tom Daley and I'm a man, so there's hope for us yet!" to straight people coming out as straight in hilarious parody because, in their world, homophobia is a thing of the past... last week sometime, whatever, they're over it already.  But there was also an argument raging about what labels should be sewn on the young man's swimming trunks.

Some news outlets described Daley as gay when he had said he is still into girls. There were a deluge of complaints about bi erasure, followed by a second wave of scorn for anyone who described Daley as bi, given that he hadn't used the label himself:
Tom Daley has not said he is gay or bi. Let him choose his own label, if/when he wants to. - @kindjourneys
Find bi carping over media calling Tom Daley gay as annoying as the media calling every MSM gay. Project rigid sexual identity? No thanks. @MxsQueen.
(A deluge, as you see - there were many others but these were most direct and to the point).

On the same day, I read an article from last week, daringly entitled: Lesbianism: Sexual fluidity is a fact of life for women. The headline is misleading - the author, Stephanie Theobold doesn't actually claim that all women can experience profound shifts in who they're sexually attracted to, but does suggest a widespread degree of fluidity based on a great hodgepodge of evidence, some valid (the author herself has experienced such fluidity), and some irrelevant (glamorous straight interviewees expressing an enthusiasm for lesbianism - as does my Mum. She will physically cringe at a scene on telly where two women kiss, but on hearing that a woman is gay, she'll always say, "Well, it sort of makes sense - with another woman, you wouldn't have to be clearing up after her all the time.").

Human sexuality is fascinating and strange and labels are never ever going to cover it. In her article, Stephanie Theobold tries hard, referring to the fact she now identifies as a Kinsey 4. reminding me of folks who offer their Myers-Briggs results by way of introduction (and the fact you remember your MBTI results and offer them as important information about yourself says a lot, regardless of the actual result).

In fact, I can easily imagine a future whether someone will devise a Myers-Briggs type matrix to describe sexuality. You'd need more letters, of course. I'd guess you'd need at least four options for libido, ranging from asexual to highly sexual. Then at least four options for sexual preference - hetero, homo, bi and fluid. Of course, bisexual is complicated - many people reject bi as referring to two genders as opposed to homo and hetero, so we may need pansexual to clear that one up. For some people, being monogamous or polyamorous is something they feel is absolutely hard-wired, so maybe that should be included too.

Recently, a friend described themselves as sapiosexual (attracted primarily to the minds of others, rather than any particular shape of body) which implies yet another spectrum between sapiosexuals and... carnisexuals? - people for whom, sex is all about flesh and circus performers. Added to this is kink, which throws us into a complex web of multicoloured handkerchiefs,

In a culture which wants to place us all in one of two boxes - straight or gay - and where those boxes are loaded down with expectation, it is understandable that folks seek to define their own special box with great care. To describe myself as bisexual is necessarily an over-simplification. Bisexual is not a love story. Bisexual is not even a story about sex. It doesn't tell anyone anything about my behaviour, it isn't clear what it says about my feelings and it doesn't say whether this is how I am now, or this is how I've always been.

But as a political word, bisexual is just fine. Perhaps disability helps with this, partly because medical matters are far less interesting than sexual ones, but mostly because I'm used to separating the social and political effects of an identity (disability) from the personal mess of how I come to it (impairment, chronic illness, however else you'd phrase it).

This is why it is valid to talk about bisexuality in the context of Tom Daley. Not to say that he's bi in the sense of having joined our club and why isn't he waving our flag already. This isn't about labels, but merely description. Bless him, but the poor lad is already experiencing (hopefully unknowingly) prejudice as a bisexual man; the assumption that he must be gay, the assumption that, by loving a man, all attraction he claims to women is the folly of youth or a strategic ploy to avoid seeming too queer. He is also experiencing prejudice as a gay man, because of general assumption that he is and all the homophobia that follows.

All this becomes harder to describe if we can't use the word bisexual as opposed to experiences attraction towards his own gender and members of at least one other gender. The media assumption that a man who loves another man is gay is something which effects all bisexual people. It's okay to discuss that.

Same if we were talking about historic or fictional characters. Unless someone has identified the words they would choose themselves, we have no choice but to use the words that best describe the feelings or behaviour we witness (and sometimes we have to override folk - the protagonists from Brokeback Mountain insist that they're not queer, Liberace insisted he was straight, but we wouldn't be able to discuss their experiences without accepting that they are wrong.)

As queer people, we should reject the idea of rigid sexual identity. It shouldn't matter if anyone was born this way or happens to feel this way for the first time in their mid-seventies. But worrying about using a word like bisexual in this context is the anxiety that bisexual is something rigid, unwieldy, a mantle which, once placed on someone's shoulders, will stay on them for life. Tom Daley may never describe himself as bisexual. As disabled people, we're very used to famous and successful disabled people telling us that they don't see themselves as disabled. But if we're to talk about the way they're treated in the media and society at large, we need to use these words about them.

There are many contexts where it is inappropriate to presume a label. In conversation, we should avoid assumption and never demand that people use words they're not comfortable with. Describing famous people with words they wouldn't use themselves is very different from talking about our friends and acquaintances.

But if we want to promote a world where sexual identity does become politically irrelevant, where our labels become far more nuanced, flexible and fluid, then we need to remove the weight from the language we have to work with now, the language that everyone understands.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who does nuance belong to?

In Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification our beloved Victoria Coren Mitchell discusses a new book by Samantha Geimer (the woman that Polanski drugged and raped as a thirteen year old girl). Much as I adore VCM, she confuses a fact about child sex abuse, and abuse generally, and a despicable lie that regularly gets in the way of reporting and justice:

  Fact: Abusers are human beings and thus are very complex, possibly with talents, virtues, their own pain, strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. Victims are often well aware of this.

  Lie: If someone has talents, or has suffered in some way, the wrongness of their crimes somehow becomes more complicated.

Child abusers are rarely terrible people in every aspect of their lives. Victims will be particularly aware of this because usually, a victim knows their abuser; these are their parents, their family friends, their priests, teachers and mentors. What's more, victims are heavily invested in the idea that their abusers were not monsters because, from their point of view;
  • If he were a monster, I wouldn't have liked or trusted him. 
  • If he were a monster, other people who cared for me would not have let him alone with me. 
  • If he were a monster, what he did to me is without meaning or explanation.
None of this is irrational.  Abusers are human beings. Victims (and the people who care for them) are not stupid, careless creatures who wander naked into caves past signs reading, "Rapist Troll Lives Here". Unless you look at the fundamental humanity of abusers, then you can't understand why this happens or how this happens. The idea that rapists and sexual abusers are monsters is one of the chief reasons that victims are so often met with disbelief; this nice family man has no horns, this talented sportsmen has no forked tail.  

And VCM would have done very well to write an article about that - to say that Roman Polanski is a man who has suffered in his life and he is very talented (though honestly, he's no Kubrick) and yet he still committed this monstrous crime. We need to see that and take note; people who are virtuous in some respects are monstrous in others. But she loses her way. Any article which discusses a rape and has the line 
"A second complicating factor is that Polanski's work is filled with beauty and humanity."
is going to boil a lot of blood. Gandhi beat his wife at least once - we don't think that was okay, and he was Gandhi, for goodness' sake. Polanski is just a film director, whose reputation has been elevated beyond his talent by his history of personal suffering. I think story-telling is nearly the most important thing on Earth, but there's nothing he could ever do in the creation of a movie that would somehow mitigate the rape of a child. VCM talks about Geimer's book:
"She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: "I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill." 
"It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim."
Only, this is not self-blame or denial.  I was abused as a young adult, so I can tell you about all kinds of foolish things I did, positions I put myself in, misplaced trust and loyalty, and I don't get to wipe that all away with, but I was a child; children are daft and don't know any better. However, none of those things make me responsible for what was done to me. None of those things make what my abuser did less serious because I made a few bad choices.

Geimer was a thirteen year old girl, who chose to pose topless, drink and take a pill she was offered. Some might judge that as stupid (I have very little context). But to think that could be read as self-blame suggests that a thirteen year old girl can do stupid things that make her to blame for her rape. She can't. Rape just isn't that complicated.
"It is the complication that we need. People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad, as if the world can be divided into Facebook likes and dislikes."
But deeds can and should be divided in this way. I like yarn-bombing. I dislike child-rape. For all I know some yarn-bombers are complete bastards and I'm sure that there are some lovely child-rapists. Except for, you know, the raping children thing, which I struggled to see past.
"So what is to be done with Samantha Geimer's story? She does not condemn Polanski nor exonerate him. She does not blame herself nor refuse to examine herself. Her voice is strong and complicated. You cannot simplify her, or him."
No we can't. But we can simplify the crime he committed towards her - which Geimer does herself. She describes it as "rape, in every sense of the word" because that's what it was. Roman Polanski is a rapist. However complicated he is as a human being, this crime was not and our response to that needs no nuance whatsoever.

Geimer's reaction is nuanced. Like all victims, Geimer is a human being who has reacted, coped with and confronted her experience in a unique and personal way. She's done it bravely, and has written a book that people say is well-written.

But the nuance of what happened to her belongs entirely to Geimer.  It doesn't belong to anyone else. 

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Butting Out of Britain's Fertility

Fortunately, most people in my life concur with what my physical health and practical circumstances tell me: I shouldn't reproduce. Well, nobody has ever told me I shouldn't, but nobody has told me I should. Okay, so two people did; one is my Gran who has dementia and has forgotten a great deal about me and the other was a family friend who suggested that pregnancy hormones could kick-start a significant improvement in my health (and if that's not worth a gamble, what is?). Point is, while many women in their early thirties find themselves subject to hints, warnings and occasionally national campaigns, I've got out of that.

An unwell and unhappy looking woman with
a poorly-placed grey wig and a pregnant belly.
I have feelings about this. They're complicated, but entirely survivable and it does mean that I often find myself thinking, "It's okay - they don't mean me."

On the same day we were presented with this fabulous infographic about the dangers of pregnancy to teenage girls across the globe, we saw this photograph of TV presenter Kate Garraway, who is neither pregnant nor 70 and had to be made-up to look like someone who is pregnant, 70 and particularly unwell, because in real life, our pregnant 70 year olds actually look a lot healthier than that. They're blooming, in fact. Or they don't exist. It's one of those, anyway.

The Get Britain Fertile campaign, run by a cosmetics company, seeks to highlight the fact that women become utterly grotesque as they age, lose their youthful good looks and no longer get any TV work - statistically, at 46, it's not only Kate Garraway's "fertility door" that's slamming shut. Getting pregnant can also damage your career chances, and while only 18% of TV presenters over 50 are women, absolutely none of them are pregnant.

I'm fed up with the idea that individual women have a completely free choice about whether to reproduce. I'm also fed up with the fact any of us should be judged, wholesale, for choices which are not entirely ours and aren't anyone else's business.

First off, and this may come as a great shock to commentators and anyone else who has ever pressured or disapproved of a woman about her reproductive choices, but human reproduction requires the fusion of a male and female gamete. There's no way round this - that's just how it must be done. Getting pregnant at any age is not a matter of placing a couple of gametes in close proximity and hoping for the best; even at peak fertility, a cis heterosexual couple will take an average of a year to conceive. Not that women can't get pregnant on the single occasion the condom splits - it happens, but it's rare.

Most women who want to have children want to have them with a partner (though not always a man, or a man who can be a father). Regardless of gender, this makes the decision to become a parent almost always a joint venture, depending not only on two people's mutual desires, but both parties feeling ready, able and not having other important things to do with their life at that particular moment. A woman who makes a unilateral decision to try for a baby within a relationship is abusive, potentially criminal depending on her methods and is unlikely to make a good mother. Certainly she compromises the other parties' chances of parenting to their best ability, since they weren't asked.

A single woman who wants children may be prepared to compromise on the partner issue, but her options are incredibly fraught. If she's wealthy, she can afford IVF and to make up the added expenses of being a single parent, otherwise the obvious method - having regular sex with a man or men who she's not partnered to - isn't going to work any faster, is potentially emotionally complicated for all concerned and is not at all socially acceptable. Single motherhood is still stigmatised, and someone seen to choose this status from the outset is likely to be judged as extremely selfish.

Selfish is a word that comes up a great deal when it comes to women and our made-up choices.

After all, women who have children very young are seen as selfish. They have not established themselves, they may be fresh from education without work experiences or wealth, and their relationships will be seen as fragile and untested (You can't expect a young man to have the maturity to be a parent!). There's the general perception that a woman who has children in her late teens or very early twenties is likely to be or become a single unemployed mother reliant on state help. Selfish.

Women who have children in their late thirties or forties are seen as selfish, because they're fertility is dwindling (so in other words, they're selfish for wanting something they have diminishing chances of getting). Rates of Down Syndrome increase (I mean, there's 750 babies born with Down Syndrome in the UK each year - it's practically pandemic). Then there's weird and stupid arguments like
  • If you have a baby in your forties, your child may be teased because their mother looks different to some of the other younger mothers. It would be better not to have children at all, than to have children who might be teased because of their or their parents' physical appearance. 
  • If you have a baby in your forties, you have more chance of becoming disabled before your child is an adult. Anyone who can't guarantee their physical capacity to play football with any potential grandchildren they may or may not have, thirty or forty years from now, should not reproduce.
  • If you have a baby in your forties, you'll have been reduced to a strict lifestyle of wearing cardigans all year round, listening to classical music and visiting garden centers by the time your children are teenagers. What teenagers need is cool Belieber parents who want to swap clothes, attend the same parties and snog the same boys as they do.
Selfish, selfish, selfish. 

Even women who try for a baby at the right time (I guess the window between twenty-five and thirty-five, coincidentally, when most women have their children) can't get it right. Are you married?  Are you solvent? Can you afford to stop working? Can you afford appropriate childcare if you carry on working?  Not that (a) many mothers or parents generally have any choice whether they work while their children are small - most either can't afford to, or can't afford not to. Nor that (b) having enough money to choose will get you off the hook. Staying at home, idling about and living off your partner's sweat is tremendously selfish. It is only equaled by farming your children out to strangers or encumbered relatives while pursuing your own selfish career goals (goals such as, bringing in enough money to keep a roof over your family's head). 

Meanwhile, women who don't try to have children are selfish.  I've never really understood this.  Even if someone chooses to avoid pregnancy because they really love their white suede sofa and don't want to see it stained, they're not going to hurt anybody.  More often, people choose not to have children for very sound conscientious reasons, chiefly because in their particular circumstances their lives would be less happy if they had children.

Apparently it's selfish because, if we require care in old age, childless people will be looked after by others who they didn't personally bring into the world. It's selfish because childless people enjoy uninterrupted sleep and don't really know what love is. It's selfish because - despite the haphazard mess that is human fertility - it's somehow going against nature.

See this young woman, who is enjoying her life too much as it is (her real problem is difficulty communicating with her husband, but that's entirely glossed over). "I know I'm selfish," she writes to Mariella Frostrup (in her capacity as Worst Agony Aunt Ever) and Frostrup concurs:
I'm anxious about the absence of profundity in your decision-making. You give me no indication of the "things you love", but they appear to centre on disposable income. Deciding whether or not to have kids is, happily, your prerogative. But to treat it so lightly, to squander the extraordinary gift women alone have been given, because you're enjoying your present "lifestyle" seems a hollow victory for those aforementioned campaigners for women's dignity and rights.
I suppose that's one up from drawing a picture of a particularly ugly woman and saying, "This could be you! Somehow! If a dramatic make-up artist really went to town on you!"

Then there's folks who want children, or are ambivalent, but simply don't have the option. There's medical things - sometimes a very slight, mysterious and unseen obstacle that all the reproductive tech in the world can't fix, other times major issues like chronic illness or major injury. But there's also myriad legitimate reasons that folks who could potentially reproduce and would like to feel that that's just not possible - that to do so, would be utterly wrong.

There is no big fertility crisis in the UK just now. The population is increasing. Globally, population growth has to slow down for the quality of life of our species to continue to rise. What we need to fight for is for better sexual and reproductive health for everyone, to learn to respect one another's choices whilst also respecting the limits of personal choice and to recognise that reproduction is not something that women ever do alone.

Now go and read two much better posts: Infertility, patriarchy, profit and me or "KERCHING!" - Infertility and woman blaming, woman shaming, woman controlling. by Karen Ingala Smith and on a lighter, but not insincere not, Diane Shipley's What I think about when I think about thinking about thinking about having children.

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Marriage, Surnames, Legitimacy & Gender

When I got married for the first time, I did not seriously consider changing my surname. My ex complained about it beforehand, but when the time came I think he congratulated himself for being so modern.  There was one person in my circle of acquaintance who had a problem with it, complained to my mother and insisted on address me as Mrs Ex's Surname from there on in. This annoyed me, but we weren't close. Meanwhile, everything was straightforward - much more straightforward than if I'd changed it. I didn't have to change my name with any companies or institutions. I sometimes didn't bother correcting strangers who addressed me as Mrs Ex's Surname but then, I didn't always bother before we were married, same as I don't bother correcting every time I'm called Miss or Mrs instead of my preferred Ms. There are only so many hours in the day.

I'm sure other people, in other communities, experience far more hassle than I did or maybe feel more offended at the misnaming. Personally, I have had far more trouble maintaining a consistent title - with one bank account, I had Ms on my debit card, Mrs on my cheque book and Miss on my bank statements!

This marriage is completely different - I feel like I need to say that a lot, not as a defense (the first one doesn't count; this is the real thing.) but because I think folk need to be aware of the fact that these things can be so completely and utterly different that it's hard to use the same words to describe them; love, romance, even marriage. Abused and otherwise miserably partnered people often feel that any given person will always have the same kind of relationships, with roughly the same dynamics, and the same kind of problems. Abused and otherwise miserably partnered people often buy into the fairly widespread cultural meme that Love Hurts and folk - especially men and women - can never have both passion and peace with one another. This is not so.

However, this has nothing to do with the fact that the surname thing is looking very different this time.  It's not because I am more in love (I am perhaps in love for the first time) or more committed (I was very committed, but this time I am certain*). It's about other things which have nothing to do with the quality or strength of this marriage, but matter a lot to us. They include:
  1. It's something we're talking about together. The whole subject is completely different when two people who are getting married ask the question, "What shall we do about our names? Shall we share one? What shall we call ourselves?"  Frankly, I swung back and forth about what I should do until the conversation became about our choice. This changes everything. 
  2. Stephen's family have welcomed me in and offered me all manner of unconditional things I have never had before.  I feel a tremendous closeness and affiliation with them.  There's a part of me that really likes the idea of sharing a name with them, almost like taking the name of an adopted family. 
  3. At this point in my life, I am known by very many names; The Goldfish, Deborah, Deb, Ms Kelly, D H Kelly, Auntie Deborah, Agent Bum Bum, Love, Sweetheart and all manner of more personal petnames and nicknames (in English, Welsh and Latin). Changing the name I am known by in some contexts would not be the same as changing my identity. In fact, it provides the possibility of another identity.  I like being all these people.  It actually feels like an opportunity to have another name, another identity to do things with. 
(1) isn't a reason to change names, but a starting point from which everything is on the table. But see what (2) and (3) have in common? Immensely personal. To do with us, our families, where we are in life.

Here's another personal thing. I would never consider changing the name that I write under.  Even though I have little published work out there, I like being D H Kelly.  It is a good name for a book spine.  Even as a child, I wrote stories with by D H Kelly under the titles.  However, given that I am working towards a career where this name is associated with a body of work, I quite like the idea of having another name for other things I want to do in my life. Often living with two surnames in use is presented as a compromise, but I think that's only because it's something men nearly never do. Having spare names can be useful.

There are folk who think that a woman changing her name upon marriage is necessarily making an unfeminist decision (all stats US - I'm sure keeping names is both far more common and acceptable in the UK, unless I roll with an extraordinary crowd).  This really bugs me, for several reasons:

For one thing, feminism is not about individual women and the personal decisions they make - personal decisions that some women will necessarily find easier and more desirable than others.  Feminism is all about removing social and political pressure, so that women (and others) have a real choice.  Naturally, women who make certain choices set a good example to others (it is possible to do this another way, even if the world suggests otherwise), but the choices themselves are personal, complicated by personal circumstance, and so haven't got much to do with a social and political movement. Women shouldn't have to apologise to our sisters for the personal choices we make around identity - in fact, feminism is all about relieving such a burden.

Most same-gender married couples I know have a shared surname. They presumably arrived at that through mutual discussion, weighing up their options, the individual feelings and any professional factors around the names they had. This is how it should be done.  Every couple, upon marrying or having a child should have a conversation which begins "What shall we do about names?"  It could be a very short conversation, it could be an ongoing discussion over a periods of months.

But  even if we all did this, unless we do away with the custom of familial surnames altogether, around half the couples who share a surname would share a husband's surname and around half of all children would take their name from a father. Sharing a husband's name is not wrong; the problem is that women feel under pressure to do so and couples often don't consider the other options.

Meanwhile, the reasons that there isn't a completely free choice relate to two far bigger, far more problematic aspects of sexism which we need to address head-on.

The first is about legitimacy.  As demonstrated by my own experience, some relationships are stronger, more committed and generate more love, happiness and creativity than others.  Some are utterly miserable and still others are dangerously awful.  However, we cannot see into people's hearts and there are very few external signs which might indicate what kind of relationship two people might be having.

Yet in our culture, we raise romantic partnerships above all other relationships; we see lasting romantic love as something both necessary and sufficient for happiness, particularly for women.  Then we set about judging whether or not someone's relationship is legitimate according to very specific and ever-changing criteria. For some couples - for example, those where one partner is coming through the immigration process - the subjective legitimacy of their relationship is a very serious matter. For other couples, legitimacy is an on-going issue among family and friends. Some examples for criteria would include:
  • Whether or not a couple live together (even when they have work in different locations). 
  • Whether or not a couple are married (and when this happened, how this happened)
  • Whether or not a couple have children together (especially if they have children by other people)
  • Whether or not a couple consists of a man and a woman (preferably straight and cis gender)
  • Whether or not a couple are monogamous (or at least seem monogamous)
  • Whether or not a couple are well-suited in superficial terms (same background, culture, age, disability status, earnings bracket etc..)
And so on and so forth.  I have heard folk cast doubt on the strength and potential longevity of a second marriage because the second wife wasn't as pretty as the first.  People are odd.

For some folk, marriage itself is about making a relationship legitimate - it is about a public declaration and celebration of a commitment.  Some people choose not to marry because they feel affronted by the idea that they need to prove their love in a public way. When it comes to personal choices, we do what feels right, which is so complex and personal it could never be neatly analysed by anyone on the outside.  Some non-religious people feel the need to marry in church; this may be about their parents or community, ideas about a proper wedding from childhood or for reasons they don't fully understand. This is absolutely fine.  I would only criticise someone (e.g. the Catholic Church) who claims that marriages outside church are less legitimate**.

And this is exactly where the pressure on couples to share the husband's name comes from; it's something that, for some people, renders other people's marriages legitimate or not. I'm sure that, despite the general grooviness of our social and family circle, some people would see Stephen and I sharing a surname (mine or his) as a sign of my greater commitment to this marriage. And that's a problem. But not one we can personally solve with any choice we make.

The other issue is about gender and relationships.  As with so many more significant lifestyle choices - being partnered, getting married, having children, the distribution of domestic work and childcare - we talk about this stuff as if women are making unilateral decisions.  We talk about a woman choosing to keep her name or take that of her husband, as opposed to a couple choosing to keep their own names etc., in the same way we talk about women choosing to marry, choosing to have children, choosing to stay at home or go to work etc.. In reality, whilst individuals have a personal veto (and we're still fighting for all women to have such a veto), when it comes to relationships, reproductive choices, childcare and paid work, we're often talking about a completely free choice that nobody has.

Romantic relationships involve many factors of complex chance and at least two ready-formed people whose life circumstances will be as muddled and messy as everyone else's. Women don't just make this stuff happen. Neither do men. But we live in a culture where these subjects are spoken about in these terms;  relationships and children are women's responsibility. Women must make the right decisions. Women must look after their men and their children, whilst resisting the loss of their own identity (which to some means a professional identity, and others means a youthful, sexually available identity). When a couple takes the wife's name on marriage, I should imagine that the wife, rather that the husband is the target of any criticism - how could it have been his idea?  Whilst we expect men to pursue sex, they are treated as weirdly powerful yet passive entities in long-term romantic relationships.

The name thing is a rather small matter - not many people get to learn our surnames, let alone how we acquired them - but any argument for or against a particular course of action on the part of women plays into this model. If we want to change the historic bias towards patronymic surnames, we need to stop talking about a woman's decision at marriage and start talking about couples and the pressures they face.

* Quite honestly, when I married my ex, I didn't expect it to last. Part of my motivation to get married was to have legal protection, because he frequently threatened to leave and take everything. Yes, this was an utterly stupid reason to marry - one of many utterly stupid reasons involved. But I just wanted to make things better and failed to even entertain the (now) obvious strategy for doing so.

** One odd aspect of the Catholic Church's rules against divorce is that previous marriages outside the Catholic Church don't count - if you previously married in a registry office or a synagogue, you may have this marriage discounted and remarry in the Church (it's not as simple as that, but it is possible). It is as if nobody who didn't marry in the Catholic Church is married at all.  However, I am yet to meet a Catholic who actually sees it that way. Meanwhile, I know Catholics who were abandoned or abused by spouses who can never marry again within their faith, without a lucky lightning bolt taking out their exes. 

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

How Not To Talk About Domestic Violence Towards Men

Content warning: As well as domestic violence, brief discussion of suicide. 

Help for men victims of domestic violence can be found at Mankind and Men's Advice Line who explicitly offer support for gay and bisexual men as well as straight men. 

Men victims of domestic abuse are almost invisible and that is a problem for everyone.

Whenever I've written about domestic abuse in the abstract, I've tried to use gender-neutral language, partly because of fairness and partly because gender is such a big problem in abuse.  Presenting victims as necessarily feminine - usually young, straight, white, non-disabled middle-class archetypes - alienates a lot of women, as well as excluding people of other genders. Presenting all perpetrators as men makes men's violence seem natural, something good men must actively resist as opposed to something anyone, of any gender, may choose to do or not.  It makes violence committed by women seem aberrant and trivial.

As I've said before, hearing stories of abuse from male friends and family was a huge help in recognising my own situation for what it was. Whenever I read or heard stories about women victims, I found reasons that I was not that kind of woman (i.e. one much more vulnerable and typically feminine than myself).  All the stories matter.  All domestic violence is connected - abuser's behaviour is often so similar, regardless of gender, sexuality, class or cultural background.  As a society, we should be ensuring that we support all victims and do what we can to prevent all kinds of domestic violence.

But whenever I read about domestic violence on-line, on newspaper sites or blogs, there's a great deal of commentary that amounts to "What about the men?"  These comments are almost always problematic. There's the standard misogynist nonsense, of course, but the comments that disturb me most are by folks - apparently men and women - who seem to genuinely care about the problems of men victims being ignored and side-lined, but seem to believe that attention on violence against women detracts from their cause.

It is because I believe that there is no way to tackle domestic violence unless we tackle all of it that I find these comments so deeply infuriating and wanted to address the ones I see time and time again:

1. It's especially hard for men who are abused because they have been taught never to hit a woman. 

I'm sure there is a particular humiliation in being beaten by someone who is smaller or physically weaker than you - or is regarded by society as gentler, softer and more physically vulnerable than you - but there is no problem in the idea that you shouldn't hit a woman.  You shouldn't hit people.  Of course, there are circumstances where I concur with the law that it is okay to hit any person, if it is necessary to prevent a rape, serious physical injury, a kidnapping or violent death. But hitting a person because they are shouting at you, or because they hit you first?  Never okay.

People who are abused by men may also consider retaliation and resist the temptation because they've been brought up not to be violent at all (as is the case with many women), or because they don't want to hurt their abuser, or because they are afraid of their own strength or capacity to inflict damage, or because they feel sure that if they hit back, they're only going to prolong the attack and get hurt all the more seriously themselves. All these things passed through my mind during abuse, but the greatest of these was quite noble; I felt it was fundamentally wrong to hurt someone - anyone - unless somebody's life depended on it.  The one time I was truly afraid for my life and tried to find a way to defend myself, the prospect of causing the necessary harm was almost as scary as what might happen to me.

Whenever the comment is made about men being taught not to hit women, it suggests that intimate violence is sometimes the answer and men victims are disadvantaged by believing otherwise.  Or maybe that a society in which women fear the violence of their partners would be a better place?  Whether it is against your nature or your conditioning to hit your loved ones, that is something which helps you not to be an abuser (and gives you the prospect of happy and healthy mutually-loving relationships).  It does not make you any more vulnerable to abuse.

I imagine that some abuse victims do sometimes hit back in circumstances that fall short of immediate self-defense, but I guarantee that this will not have made their situation any better.  Relationships where both parties are violent towards each other can only end in disaster.

On a similar theme...

2. Stories of abuse which include the sentence "I never hit her once."

I think I understand why some men say this; because they feel defensive.  Discussion of domestic violence which focuses on the dynamic where men abuse women seems to make some men feel as if they have been personally cast in the role of abuser just by being a man.  No serious or sensible person believes this to be the case.  Many women survivors of abuse by men gain a more positive attitude towards men in general after they have escaped and realised that their experiences were exceptional and abhorrent, as opposed to the way men are.

However, whenever someone says "I never hit her once" it strongly suggests that hitting one's partner would be a normal response. The idea that it would be somehow natural for men to hit women who mistreat them lies at the heart of many of our problems with domestic violence; the idea that violence is simply more difficult to resist for men and a natural consequence for women who (deliberately or not) make life difficult for them. It says men abusers can't help themselves, and the violence of other abusers must be trivial, if not entirely fabricated.

You never hit her once?  Of course you didn't.  I never hit my abuser either.  If I write about my experiences of poverty, I don't have to state that I never took money from my Granny's purse.

3. Domestic Violence is not a gender issue because men are victims too.

This is partly a linguistic problem, but one that really matters.  Gender does not mean, about women, or  the sole concern of women or indeed, something men do to women.  Men have a gender too!  There are other genders!

Gender usually plays a massive role in domestic violence.  Almost whenever men who have been abused by women tell there stories, the abuse is heavily laden with gendered language and ideas about what it is to be a man; their natural inadequacies as men or their inability to live up to some ideal of manhood.  The same applies to people abused within same-gender relationships and even non-romantic ones.  Abusive parents tell their sons to man up or their daughters to be more ladylike or else they criticise they sons as insensitive men and their daughters as over-emotional bitches.  All of that and much much more.

Domestic violence is not exclusively a women's issue (even if only women were abused, it should still concern us all).  But talking about gender in domestic abuse is not the same as saying it is all about women or that it is something that men and only men are responsible for - an accusation repeatedly made towards anyone who writes about domestic abuse, regardless of the language they have used.

4. Women abusers make false accusations and everyone believes them. 

This is a circular argument.  All abuse victims will be disbelieved by someone, either specifically or, as such comments demonstrate so well, generally.  Marginalised people are routinely disbelieved when they describe their own experiences. It's particularly offensive to see mention of false accusations under the harrowing personal accounts of abuse victims who have been brave enough to describe their experiences, as the implication seems to be that any woman who speaks up about abuse may be covering for her own abusive behaviour.  All abusers lie, but it is extraordinarily unlikely that a lie should be taken this far.

All abusers blame their victims, lie about their crimes and try to present themselves as the victim of at least something; abuse itself, other mistreatment, cheating, lies, disloyalty etc.. Women abusers are almost certainly more likely than men to threaten to make false accusations of violence, but male abusers have their own arsenal of effective dismissing and discrediting strategies.

Anyone who has children with an abuser has reason to fear a custody battle, because those people see children as a legitimate weapon, and our family courts are a bit of a mess. There is a bias towards women as primary caregivers, but mothers still sometimes lose their children to abusive men who are able to manipulate the system (especially if they are in any position of authority - a police officer or a doctor, for example).

Custody battles aside, abusers are extremely unlikely to take false accusations very far, for exactly the same reasons that victims are unlikely to talk openly about or pursue justice for the crimes against them; identifying oneself as a victim has a massive social and psychological cost.

Part of that cost is the doubt of others.  Part of that cost is paid if you ever write about or speak about your experiences of abuse in a public sphere, only to be told that people like you are motivated to lie in order to keep the house and children you never had, or to cover up the abuse that you never committed.

5. More men are killed by domestic violence if you count suicide.

This is in response to the indisputable fact that women are much more likely to be raped, hospitalised or killed by their partners or former partners - two women a week in the UK.  This doesn't mean that men cannot be raped, hopsitalised or killed by domestic violence - a man is killed by a partner or former partner once a fortnight. The naive idea that men's experiences of domestic violence is necessarily minor and cannot sharply escalate is deadly dangerous.

Domestic abuse is a common, massively underestimated cause of mental ill health. Abuse victims do sometimes kill themselves, sometimes long after the relationship has ended.  However (a) suicide is absolutely not the same as murder, (b) casual discussion of suicide as a direct consequence of certain experiences can be very dangerous for survivors of those experiences and (c) threats of suicide are common weapons abusers use, especially as control over a victim begins to slip away. We should always take care when talking about suicide.

Suicide threats* are probably extremely common during messy break-ups and terrible rows even between otherwise reasonable people, when one party feels their world is falling apart and will say anything to try to persuade the other to stay. This is always a very bad thing to do, but fortunately, it is rarely meant or taken seriously. There are significant differences for abuse victims because
  • The threat may come from someone who is no stranger to violence. 
  • The threat may come from someone who has made outlandish threats and carried them out in the past.
  • Victims are used to being blamed and taking the blame for their abuser's unhappiness and misfortune.
My ex's declared capacity for suicide had hung over me for years, especially as I was the main cause of his depression. During the months after I left - despite removing the supposed source of his unhappiness - I genuinely expected him to kill himself.  He talked about it at great length (it's a tragic myth that talking about it means a person won't go through with it). In order to carry on with my life and proceed with the divorce, I had to accept that he could die and hold me responsible.

Honestly, with hindsight, I do not know whether the threats were all bullshit or not.  But I'm describing behaviour that took place when I was at the strongest I had been in my whole adult life, and even then, there's no way I can pretend to have been indifferent to the idea that my behaviour could be even a contributing factor in someone's violent death. I had lived through the guilt of having a close friend attempt suicide years earlier. The threats would have been quite enough to regain control over someone with only a little less going for them. (Our culture tends to romanticise scary obsessive self-destructive behaviour by rejected men.)

Threats of suicide are a major red flag in violent relationships; someone who threatens suicide as a weapon of control is more likely to take someone else's life.  Meanwhile, there are all kinds of other things we need to concentrate on if we wish to prevent suicide (like ditching this casual pop psych cause and effect model of suicide) and take care of the mental health of all people who have been abused. Using suicide to have an argument about the relative damage caused to men and women? Pointless, crass and dangerous.

6. Women receive all this support and men receive none because people keep talking about violence towards women. 

Provision for victims of domestic abuse is poor. Provision for victims who aren't women is appalling.  This is definitely not the fault of women victims. It's not the fault of people who advocate for women victims or talk about violence against women. Domestic violence is simply not spoken about enough in our culture. Anyone who speaks up about it is making the world a slightly better place.

Same with cancer. Research into various cancers gets far more funding than any other medical condition, including those which are more common, or more commonly deadly or disabling. Dementia, for example, costs the economy much more and is, often though not always, a much more unpleasant condition for both the person with it and their family.  But dementia receives a fraction of the funding and attention that cancer receives. Are people who work or raise money for cancer charities and cancer research facilities to blame for the limited research into dementia?  Would it ever be worth having an argument about which group of very sick and dying people are more deserving of attention and help?  Would it ever be less than odious to respond to an account of someone's life with cancer by saying, "It's okay for you with your fashionable disease..."?

There are loads of reasons why provision for victims who are not women are so very poor.  Some of these are to do with numbers; typically, women are more likely to be in danger of their lives and less likely to have the financial and practical means of effective escape.  Some of this is to do with accidents around how and when refuges and charities have been set up (disabled and queer women can also find themselves shut out).

However, most of this is cultural and we're all part of this culture. We have an almost adversarial model of heterosexual relationships, where men and women are having to fight or deceive one another for their mutually exclusive needs. Men and women are not supposed to get on. People ask explorers who are in love with one another how they manage to be alone together for months together without killing each other. There is more mainstream humour around violence towards men**.  My straight women friends and family are much more likely to joke about slapping or hitting their partners if they misbehave (although others do sometimes make those jokes).

But perhaps most of all, as a culture, we struggle with the idea that men can be hurt in these ways. We treat violence (along with verbal aggression and other controlling behaviour) as something that belongs to boys and men; that boys and men will both be violent and cope with violence. In movies, men are beaten, stabbed and shot and are seen to survive all manner of violence without trauma. The idea that an intimate partner can take control of a man's life through verbal aggression, humiliation, criticism and a level of violence which might not even leave a bruise, doesn't quite fit.

Anyone who talks about domestic abuse as some kind of battle of the sexes issue, where they make generalisations about men's or women's attitudes and behaviour, where they paint a picture of the world divided into warring heterosexual couples, when they suggest that members of one gender cannot be trusted on their accounts, then they're making the whole situation worse. They are perpetuating the myth of a natural conflict between men and women - a myth that is a gift to all abusers. They are silencing victims who are already taking big risks to speak out. They are shutting down these discussions.

7. It's all the fault of feminists that male victims of domestic violence are ignored.

In my corner of the world, the only people I see talking about domestic violence towards men are feminists or people who share the values of feminism.  There's no point making a blanket defense of feminism and claiming that feminists have never said or done spectacularly stupid and harmful things on this and many other issues (ha!). But people who cause a fuss about violence against women are not the enemy when it comes to tackling violence against people of other genders.

In fact, if you want to borrow my stolen Tardis and head back before Second Wave feminism, to a time where little short of murder going on within a household was a private family matter, men victims of domestic violence had even less hope of escape, support or justice. Increasing attention on and discussion of domestic violence as experienced by women - together with increasing attention on sexual abuse and violence - has made room for, rather than stifling, discussion of intimate violence experienced by people of other genders.

Yes, people still imagine a woman (a certain kind of woman) when they think of a victim of sexual or domestic violence.  But at least folks now have some consciousness that these things aren't confined to newspaper stories or soap plots, that these things happen all around us.  Feminist discussion allows us to define abuse far more broadly that physical domination through brute strength. All this benefits everyone.

More needs to be done, but it is everyone's responsibility.  It is not up to people whose focus is violence against women to shift their focus.  It is up to all of us to talk about all the problems society has and see about ways we can change it for the better.

* I hope it is very obvious, but just in case, a suicide threat is not the same thing as someone reaching out and confessing to suicidal thoughts in order to seek help, comfort and support. This doesn't mean a threat is always framed "If you do X, I will kill myself."  In my experience it is often "Fine, you do X as you want to and I will kill myself." or "Now you have done X, all that's left for me is to kill myself."

**Although when it does crop up, humour around violence towards women tends to be more serious, e.g. rape jokes, as opposed to "I'll give him a slap." jokes. Only this weekend, there's been another issue with t-shirts with "humourous" slogans about violence towards women.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sessions: Discussing Disability & Sex Work

When I began reading the essay that inspired The Sessions (via @emmajtracey) by the late writer and poet Mark O'Brien, I expected to cringe in much the same way as I have cringed at all the other articles or forum posts I have read about disabled men paying for sexual services. I didn't.

I expected:

(a) Disability as an overarching explanation for sexual drought. There's nothing wrong with expressions of sexual frustration, romantic longing and loneliness (well, you know, there's a time and place), but many people experience these things for a great variety of reasons. Disability can be a massive factor, but it is also a complex and immeasurable one. O'Brien writes;
I had fallen in love with several people, female and male, and waited for them to ask me out or seduce me. Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened. Nothing was working for me in the passive way that I wanted it to, the way it works in the movies.
O'Brien acknowledges that not all disabled people have difficulties in love or sex. The isolation of having to spend most of his time in an iron lung, together with his shyness and anxiety around sex and romance are acknowledged as the main reasons for O'Brien's lack of sexual experience. He doesn't, as others have done, rail against society in general and women in particular who have "mistreated" him by not being all that interested.

As Mik Scarlet says in his post entitled Brothels for the Disabled? No Thanks!
The effect of this false belief that disabled people need the services of prostitutes more than anyone else is the second reason why I am opposed as it causes issues for the way society thinks about disability... For disabled people, it means they grow up in an atmosphere that makes them believe that they just aren't sexy or potential sexual partners and for the non-disabled community it plays a part in continuing the prejudice around disability. More than that, as all non-disabled people are just disabled people before an illness or injury, it means that if they acquire a disability part of the grieving process they will have to go through revolves around the loss of their sexual confidence.
I decided not to link to any of the uncomfortable articles I refer to, because they are by vulnerable men, usually anxious young men, who are nervous around women and have been quite brave writing about their experiences.  My input to their personal circumstances would probably not be helpful, so it would certainly not be kind.

But just now, there's a young disabled man campaigning for the British government to fund sexual services for disabled men. Apart from the what? how? and given that social care and essential benefits are currently being slashed against a backdrop of stereotypes of disabled people as entitled layabouts, why the hell now?, there's a real problem with defining what experiences are unique to a disabled person. Campaigner Christopher Fulton says
"I have been to nightclubs in Birmingham but they are no good for me. When I tried to use dating agencies as soon as they heard I was disabled they didn’t want to know."
Any other twenty-nine year old man stating this would receive shrugs, commiserations and then maybe some good advice. But because he is a disabled man, this gets in the paper like it is a special experience, extraordinary, part of the tragedy of his situation. It's not. There are aspects of Fulton's life experience which are not normal and must interfere with life significantly - like having no choice about his bedtime (the bane of disabled adults, especially night owls, who rely on state carers to put them to bed). But not getting lucky in a nightclub? Having a demoralising time with dating agencies?

Not only does this encourage the idea that disabled people are especially unattractive (which not only makes us feel less attractive, but reinforces the idea to others), this raises a really obvious ethical point around sex work.  If disabled people are inherently sexually unattractive, and nobody wants to have sexual contact with us, why would a sex worker feel differently?

After all, almost every other article I have read by a disabled man who has paid for sexual services include;

(b) Wild assumptions about the inner life of a sex worker. In regular sex work, one principle objective has to be be to make the client imagine that the sex worker is having a wonderful time, even when she is miserable - even when she is being coerced into the act. The more she pretends to enjoy it, the sooner the ordeal should be over. This doesn't mean all sex workers are miserable or coerced, but this possibility makes it extremely uncomfortable when disabled men who have used prostitutes describe these women's enthusiasm - often in terms borrowed straight from pornography - as a justification for what they have done. Which is a confusing message next to disability as a sexual deal breaker: I am completely unattractive, but I was irresistible to her, because there was money involved. 

O'Brien's physical descriptions of Cheryl, his sexual surrogate, are sparing and as for her feelings, he mostly only reports her expressions and the things she says. Cheryl explains when she doesn't like a particular activity, but that other women may do and it is always important to ask. When asked whether she has had an orgasm, Cheryl gives an honest answer. O'Brien doesn't speculate, let alone make assumptions, about why she does what she does. This makes me feel happier about the physical and psychological safety of Cheryl than any other sex worker I have read about in the third person.

(c) A sense of enormous entitlement. At no point does O'Brien claim that having sex with another person is a right, a fundamental human need or any such thing.  His priority in seeing a surrogate was to sort out some of the psychological baggage he had around his body and sexuality, not to get an orgasm.  He talks about his hopes for the future but without providing an idealised account of the kind of woman he would like to have a relationship with - in fact, he sees the matter of his future desires as very complicated. He acknowledges that he has not often found disabled women attractive without framing that possibility as "settling for second best" (which I genuinely read in one article by a disabled men who had paid for sex).

O'Brien's essay was published in 1990 and he died in 1999 (I know for sure that had he still been here, the internet would have revolutionised his social, sexual and romantic prospects). I would be the last person to suggest we need to turn back the clock on attitudes towards sex and sexuality, but there is a tone to O'Brien's essay which is seldom seen in the discussion of disabled people and sex work today. All the reasons I usually cringe and feel uncomfortable about these discussions are to do with reducing sex with another person - a very human, very organic behaviour - to a consumer right.  It is not fair that I can't have the long-legged blonde of my dreams, just because I'm in a wheelchair. It's my right.

These arguments feel as if they are borrowed partly from the disability rights movement and partly from pornography (which is, of course, a medium of fiction). O'Brien offers a reason why he is particularly disinterested in hiring prostitutes, despite having paid for sexual services from Cheryl:
Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved, body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants.
I wonder if this is why some disabled men so readily and publicly enthuse about the idea of paying for sex - because they are used to having their more immediate bodily needs catered for in exchange for money?  There is even less nuance in our discussions of the highly nuanced business of personal care than in our discussions of sex. Meanwhile, disabled people's bodies are so often seen by the people around us as passive things to be fixed or taken care of, as opposed to tools we can used to express ourselves and potentially, give pleasure to others.

Usually, I leave these accounts feeling that there has been no consideration for the rights of sex-workers or women in general. A person's right not to have sex or engage in sexual behaviour, without financial, social or physical pressure, trumps any amount of sexual frustration.  It's not sexism to only be attracted to one gender and it's not racism or disablism if you prefer tall athletic able-bodied blondes (it can be, however, be a double standard and a quirk that will significantly narrow your chances of sexual fulfillment). Sex-workers are not exempt from these freedoms just because money is involved. Thus, sex with another person can never ever be a "right" and any time it is framed that way, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

But O'Brien's essay struck me as very important, and I recommend you read the whole thing. He recognises the complexity of disability as a potential obstacle to sex and love - practically, socially and psychologically - without making it any less personal or less complicated than it really is.

See also: The Undebateable Undateables

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