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Category Archives: smash patriarchy

Gender anti-fascism and the fourth wave.

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People have been asking to write about men and feminism, and for weeks I have been trying to put my thoughts down in something approaching a logical and consistent order. Then, today, I read Cath Elliot’s latest piece for Comment is Free – on sexual bullying of girls at school – and it all clicked into place.

Because of course, Cath is right. School is where it all starts. School is where girls learn to be sexually frightened of men. School is where girls learn that their bodies are objects of desire over which they do not automatically get sovereignty. And the fact that people are sitting up and taking this seriously can only be applauded.

But Cath’s article only tells a part of the truth, and sometimes a half-truth can be cripplingly misleading. I don’t remember school as an environment where the boys lorded it around without a care in the world and the girls squeaked in corners hoping not to be felt up. In fact, as I recall, bloody all of us were terrified nearly all of the time. Most pupils of both sexes were learning what violence meant, which was power, and what power meant, which was sex. And everyone, whatever their sex, gender and orientation, lived with the fear of being declared not quite right – not girly enough, not manly enough, gay. School is where those rules of gender, power and violence were laid down, and it was a game ultimately won by nobody.

Sexual bullying in particular happens across the board in schools, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with romance. It’s perpetrated by boys against girls, but also against other boys, and in rare cases girls are even the aggressors themselves, and in every case it’s about asserting power over the victim, about laying down rules of dominance and submission. Moreover, male violence is a more constant and immediate threat for boys at school than it is for girls, as a recent study by antibullying.net shows: 90% of school-age boys reported being bullied mostly or mainly by other boys, compared to 29% of girls. In Brighton and Hove, attacks on boys account for 75% of violent incidents in school. So, in a childhood world where sexual and physical violence profoundly affect children of all sexes in school, is violent bullying still a gender issue?

Of course it is. Violence– whether sexual, physical or both – is almost always gendered, and remains gendered throughout adulthood, because it is about power, and gender as constructed by patriarchal society has always been about power. That’s why rape is always a violent act, the opposite of romance. Sexual and physical violence has been ingrained as a method of asserting a primitive idea of ‘masculinity’ and of patriarchal might for as long as nations have relied on having expendable, damaged, violent young men to send off to war at a moment’s notice. For all our talk of civilisation, we remain an intensely divided, primitive and warlike society – and we will continue to do so as long as our young men grow up learning that every other punch goes unpunished, every other verbal assault unremarked, as long as they grow up learning that instead of becoming whole human beings, they have to learn to fight. We will continue to be uncivilised whilst the schoolyard remains the place where, as their parents and teachers look on, a violent policing of gender, sexual and power norms is beaten into every child with fists and words, a message handed down through the generations that this is the way it goes and the proper reaction is to be a big girl/ be a man and suck it up.

Most men are not violent, but when violence happens, it is mostly perpetrated by men. That is not a statement about the inherent character of half the people on the planet, any more than it is to say: most women are not designed by nature to be domestic slaves, but when domestic slavery happens, it usually happens to women. These things are not native to us. The statement that we were not put on this planet to be either passive homemaking childcare-dispensers or vicious inhumane soldiers is a simple one, but one which runs counter to at least two thousand years’ worth of socio-cultural indoctrination.

This culture has been achingly slow to even begin to let go of the archetype of masculinity bred from the archaic notion that whilst the female body is sacrosanct or profane- to be used and controlled – the male body is fundamentally dispensible. Women across the world remain unaware of the extent to which the Western model of masculinity is damaging – partly because we ourselves have spent way too long trying to emulate it.

In reacting against the artificial prison of Western womanhood, liberated women have turned against their former masters with all the righteous rage of escaping slaves, not realising that they too are indentured. A crucial mistake that continues to be made is the fallacy that the fact that men are also worked over by their gender somehow invalidates the whole concept behind feminism. It does not. Pointing out that the slavemaster is a slave too does not excuse the fact that he used the whip, but it does explain it – and it does not mean that he deserves his freedom any less. However, across the debate sphere for decades the cry ‘but men don’t have it easy either’ has been assumed as a direct attack on feminism – and sometimes it has even been meant as one. Otherwise perfectly intelligent commentators descend into petty fights over whose gender oppression trumps whose, not realising that everyone’s gender oppression is equally valid, not understanding that the expression of someone’s struggle is not an attack on everyone else’s.

Recent decades have seen the dissolution of the gender liberation movement into in-fighting, with men and women attacking each other as if each were somehow to blame for the other’s lot in life. Men have remained unreconstructed, in the truest sense of that term, whilst women have gone on to socially evolve beyond recognition in the space of thirty years. Instead of claiming their own reconstruction in tandem, men have reacted at the shock of having the ability to define themselves against women taken away. Feminists have reacted against that backlash in turn, and the whole thing has descended to wary stalemate, neither side trusting the other enough to put their weapons down and start drawing up a peace treaty.

If we are truly to leave gender fascism behind, we cannot allow ourselves to think in binaries – men and women, boys and girls, us and them. If we are to be liberated, then we must all be liberated, together: there can be noone left behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is already moving to force us to the negotiating table, as the information age makes division of work by gender less and less logical and traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity belong increasingly to the past.

So what I hope for is a new kind of feminism – one that recognises that it is not only about liberating biological women from the constraints and indignities associated with their sex, but about liberating all human people from the cruelties and limitations imposed on them by their gender. It is still fem.in.ism because it is about the exaltation and expression of ‘femininity’, but equally about re-imagining what masculinity and femininity signify. Women’s battles are at the heart of the movement, but they are part of the gender struggles of all human beings. We have to recognise that the spectrum of gender prejudice extends into everyone’s lives and places limitations on all of us. We must see that when a young boy in boarding school faces daily sexual and physical violence for not being ‘masculine’ enough, when a girl on a sink estate finds herself on the wrong end of the postcode lottery when she tries to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, when a woman is fired from a senior boardroom position after her maternity leave, when a young man is sentenced to years in prison for membership of a violent street gang whose excesses provide the only positive enforcement he has ever known, those cruelties stem from the same source, and they must be considered together.

The best term for what is perpetrated by patriarchal cultural mores is not misogyny nor even organised sexism, but gender fascism. Fascism in its most literal sense, in its etymological notion of the fasces, the ordered bundle, everything in its proper, pre-ordained and rigidly socially determined place. Ladies, gentlemen and everyone else in attendance: gender fascism is what we need to set ourselves against. And that is why – yes, Julie – we are all feminists are queer allies, every drag queen and transman and every nightclub queer and every straight conformist male living a life of quiet desperation and every person trying to live their live as a complete human being is a feminist ally who sets themselves against gender feminism, or if they aren’t, they bloody should be. Who’s with me?

Lesbian mums and the end of patriarchy

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Medical technology is an awesome thing. It can save lives, cure terrible diseases, rebuild bodies. It can prolong and improve the lives of the chronically ill and disabled beyond the wildest dreams of sufferers even fifty years ago. It can reattach limbs, restore sight, cure depression, return the manic to health and sanity. But can it be used to give women control over whether and when they have children? Only if male doctors and MPs say so.

Whoever your parents are, they’re going to fuck you up to some extent. I make no apologies for assuming that gay women and single women are just as likely to make good parents as anyone else, if not more so, as children conceived via the arduous process of IVF are slightly more likely to be wanted and treasured infants. For the purposes of this post we shall assume that one’s sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s likelihood of raising an unfucked-up child, nor on one’s right to attempt to do so. With that one out the way, let’s tuck in to a tasty breakfast of radical feminism with a gin chaser.

Throughout the wholesale technological reworking of the cultural landscape in the 20th and 21st centuries, laws remained in place to prevent new medical technologies and increased understanding liberating women’s reproductive choices. Even now, a woman must gain the permission of two doctors and undergo stringent ‘checks’ before she can access safe medical abortion. Until recently, women seeking IVF needed to declare a father and use a named man’s sperm despite the existence of plausible alternatives. But this week, in an impressive feat of anti-Luddism, MPs voted to allow single female parents and lesbian couples the right to reproductive self-determination: the right to have children, if they choose, without mandatory male interference.

‘Fathers are no longer needed!’ screamed the headlines as the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill passed through the commons on Tuesday. Well, we could have told you that. Millions of us grew up without fathers at home, without fathers at all. Millions more of us have loving and productive relationships with our fathers, but it is categorically not the case that any father at all is better than no father. The work of pregnancy, labour and the majority of childrearing still falls upon women, and it is inhumane to insist that that work be anything other than a sphere of self-determination. Men do not go through the physical trauma of conception, pregnancy and labour; men can have no right, as such, to insist upon any control over the process. It might be hard for individual men to swallow, but until medical technology enables them to conceive, incubate and bear children themselves, fatherhood will remain a privilege to be earned, rather than a right to be insisted on.

Reproductive rights campaigning goes far deeper than individual instances of choice. It’s a powerful cultural fascination, an issue that is woven into the very fabric of the stories that make us modern. From the rape of the Sabine women to Europa, ancient myth and precedent is obsessed by violent male control of feminine reproductive potential. From Brave New World to 1984 to the Culture, fables and fictions of the future are replete with paranoid speculation over the reorganisation of reproductive control.

The power to continue – or not to continue – the human race is quite simply the biggest social loaded gun on the planet. Since the dawn of patriarchy, male control over reproductive rights has been essential to the furtherance of patriarchal power, just as the ancient matriarchies ended when men’s involvement in human reproduction was realised.

This is why the rights of women to have children without ‘declaring the father’, to terminate pregnancy and to raise children alone, are such emotive and important legal sticking points. Women’s right to decide whether and when and how they have children is the ultimate threat to the rule of men, the ultimate insult to the divine supremacy of the father, and this week’s Commons vote is a milestone in the erosion of political patriarchy whose significance we will be debating for years to come.

Conservative MPs such as Ian Duncan Smith have made “impassioned pleas that the Government plan would “drive another nail into the coffin of the traditional family”” (DailyHate, 21.05.08). The assumption of the Tories is that the vacuous notion of the ‘traditional family’ ever had any relevance. The organisation of human love has little to do with how children are raised and everything to do with the maintenance of the bourgeois state – and excuse me for coughing communism onto this keyboard, I’ve got this little marxist tickle that just won’t quit.

The Embryology Bill marks a turning point in the history of patriarchy, and all of us -men and women and transpeople, feminists and libertarians and trade unionists – can congratulate ourselves on beating back the tide of fundamentalist reactionism at extremely short notice. But, since this is a fight we’re going to be called to again and again, we will have to spend the meantime coming to terms with the radical systemic social change that must be the end-point of our ideology. The rights of women to biological self-determination, the rights of mothers to bear or not to bear children without mandatory male interference, must remain fixed points on the agenda of the British left. Men have a right to stand alongside women, a right to care for their children, a right to take up the responsibilities of fatherhood once that privilege has been granted them. Fathers have their place. But that place is no longer at the head of the table.