“The object is cultural transformation. The object is the development of a new kind of human being and a new kind of human community.” - Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (192)

About a decade ago, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote a searing critique of Judith Butler, titled “The Professor of Parody,” in which she argued that Butler’s work barely brought anything new or interesting to the table. Butler – and by implication, the whole queer theoretical tradition – was simply rehashing in more abstruse form ideas about the social constructed-ness of gender that had been put forward centuries ago by Plato and John Stuart Mill. Feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, had already sufficiently updated these ideas for modern times, and queer theory more-or-less repeats their arguments with an added dose of philosophical window-dressing.

Having recently had the privilege to read some of Dworkin’s books, I think this point of view is partly right. Her early work – published in the aftermath of radical feminism’s 1970s zenith – did indeed prefigure many of queer theory’s insights in sharp and provocative ways. However, in the 1980s, her work took a turn in a different direction, positing a reading of gender and sexuality that reified the system of patriarchal oppression feminists have been struggling against, and therefore, (unintentionally) undermined the potential for transforming that system. In this context, queer theory can be read as an attempt to return feminism to its more radical, hopeful, and transformational incarnations. This essay will explore these themes by comparing two of Dworkin’s most well-known books, Woman Hating and Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

“Androgyny, Fucking, Community”

Woman Hating was Dworkin’s first published book, written during the apex of radical feminism in the early 1970s. Contemporary queer theorists often assume that Second Wave feminism (even in its most radical forms) was hopelessly essentialist, simplistic and trans/homophobic. Woman Hating destroys these assumptions; it is an astoundingly contemporary book that contains previews of many of the arguments queer theorists developed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Most feminists and queer theorists share a conception of gender as socially constructed, with the latter arguing – somewhat cautiously – that gendered behavior should not be taken to represent an internal essence of a person and the former positing more boldly that “‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs” (Dworkin, Woman Hating, 174). These two positions are basically the same: they denaturalize gender and conceptualize it as the product of social forces.

Where feminism and queer theory are assumed to differ is in their respective analyses of physical sex. Feminists have entrenched a clear distinction between sex and gender, conceptualizing gender as a malleable product of culture and socialization and viewing sex as natural, material and unchangeable. Queer theorists have exploded this dichotomy, extending the denaturalization of gender to sex and arguing that ideas about the sexed body form the basis for patriarchal claims about gender. For instance, if a female’s body is defined in terms of the vagina, and the vagina is interpreted primarily as an incubator for human fetuses, it then follows that a woman’s fundamental role in life is reproduction. This is the ideational basis for sexist politics that assigns the vast majority of childcare obligations to women and confines them to home and hearth. Implicit in queer theory, therefore, are the notions that physical sex can be interpreted differently (e.g. – what if the clitoris was viewed as the defining aspect of the female?), that it is just as socially constructed as gender, and that dominant discourses about the body form the foundation for sexism and misogyny.

While this relationship between sex and gender sometimes went amiss in Second Wave feminism, Dworkin duly recognized it in Woman Hating. She emphasized that the way we conceive of physical sex has huge consequences for gender politics: “If there are two discrete biological sexes, then it is not hard to argue that there are two discrete modes of human behavior, sex-related, sex-determined. One might argue for a liberalization of sex-based roles, but one cannot justifiably argue for their total redefinition” (175). Here, foreshadowing queer theory, Dworkin realizes that as long as we remain anchored in the binary view of sex, the fundamental reorganization of gendered life will be impossible because two categories of people, based on two bodily archetypes, will always be conceived as somehow essentially different, with correspondingly diverging roles in life. “Sex...[is] found to have been gender all along” (Butler, Gender Trouble, 8).

But even more interesting than Dworkin’s cognizance of this problem is her solution. In a striking chapter, titled, “Androgyny, Fucking, Community,” she outlines “another ontology, one which discards the fiction that there are two polar distinct sexes” (175). For Dworkin, the problems of sexism and misogyny can only be fully resolved by ditching the two-sexed model on which modern society is built and replacing “the traditional biology of sex difference with the radical biology of sex similarity” – by this, she means not that “there is one sex, but that there are many” (175). This very same argument would be made almost two decades later by genderqueer activists, who fight patriarchy by living the dream of a multi-sexed existence, a world in which sex and gender do not divide neatly into two and only two categories, and in which a multiplicity of sexed and gendered categories can proliferate. In this sense, Dworkin is prophetic in Woman Hating, recognizing that the struggle to end patriarchy will require “the development of a new kind of human being and a new kind of human community,” founded on the basis of the assumption that everyone has androgynous potential and a mix of masculine and feminine energies (192). Today’s genderqueers and gender anarchists may very well be what she was envisioning.

Implicit in her vision is an attempt to broaden feminism’s appeal and universalize its message – another mainstay of queer theory. By challenging the idea that the subject of feminism should be “women,” Judith Butler called attention to what is lost by conceptualizing feminism exclusively in terms of winning rights for the female-bodied. Such a foundation may lead to essentialist and exclusionary definitions of what it means to be a woman, might encourage separatist agendas that reject any engagement with society, and could foster an “us-vs.-them” mentality in which feminism pits men against women without realizing the ways in which men can are oppressed by the gender system as well. In Woman Hating, Dworkin seems to be aware of these issues, and thus, lays out a feminist agenda that could potentially be applicable to all, that aims to end gender and sexual repression in general, at the same time as fighting specifically to end violence against women. For instance, prefiguring Julia Serano, Dworkin recognizes that misogynistic violence is not just aimed at people who are labeled “female” but also at anyone who is identified as “feminine,” regardless of their sex. On the basis of this assertion, she envisages a potentially productive alliance between feminists and gay men:

“The homosexual is the queer, asshole, cocksucker, faggot; the woman is the hole, hot wet fuck tube, hot slit or just plain ass. He thrives on pain and so does she… the parts they play in the sadomasochistic script are the same…[and] it is not hard to see that the struggle for gay male liberation and women’s liberation is a common struggle: both mean freedom from the stigma of being female… Women and homosexual males are united in their queerness, a union which is real and verifiable” (89-90).

Make no mistake, the feminism in Woman Hating is very much about ending oppression and violence against women (as the harrowing chapters on Chinese foot-binding and Euro-American witch hunting attest). But Dworkin realizes that feminism should not stop there, that it should outline an ambitious agenda for complete social transformation, and that it should seek to (re)construct the gendered order on the basis of androgyny instead of gender binarism. Sounding exactly like Kate Bornstein, Dworkin makes clear that “androgyny…may be the one road to freedom open to women, men, and that emerging majority, the rest of us” (154).

This is not to say that major differences do not exist between the approach outlined in this book and modern-day queer theory. For instance, Dworkin expresses enthusiastic support for incest, bestiality and sex with children, arguing that “the destruction of the incest taboo is essential to the development of cooperative human community based on the free-flow of natural androgynous energy” (189) and that “in androgynous community, human and other-animal relationships would become more explicitly erotic…” (188). She also develops her case for androgynous community and the potential for a multi-sexual society on the basis of scientific evidence about chromosomes, hormones, and intersexuality. Modern genderqueer theory tends to take a more phenomenological approach, focusing on individuals’ experience of being outside the gender binary, rather than seeking “objective” scientific proof that such an experience is biologically possible. Finally, Dworkin commits the cardinal sin of Second Wave feminism, stating that the “analysis in [Woman Hating] applies to the life situations of all women” (23). One wonders whether a book that starts with an analysis of Western fairy tales (Snow White, Cinderella etc…) and Western pornography would be relevant to women in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, who have never been exposed to these cultural productions? Since the 1970s, feminists have indeed become a lot more sensitive to the difficulties of speaking on behalf of “all women.”

But despite these and other differences, Woman Hating is – at its core – queer through and through. Dworkin’s approach to the relationship between sex and gender, her undermining of the sex/gender binary, her commitment to a liberating and socially transformative androgyny, and her attempts to universalize feminism’s appeal all sit very comfortably with the queer theoretical tradition. Isn’t it about time we recognized Andrea Dworkin as one of the mothers of queer theory?

Part II of this post, where I analyze Dworkin's later work, will be posted on Below the Belt in a fortnight. In the meantime, please feel free to start a discussion in the comment box below!

***For More Information***
While her books are, unfortunately, quite hard to find, there are plenty of websites where you can access Andrea Dworkin's work. For more on radical feminism, I recommend Alice Echols' Daring to be Bad, which also reveals further unacknowledged connections between radical feminism and queer theory. On queer theory, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble remains an excellent introduction. For a more contemporary discussion, check out the recently released Feminism is Queer by Mimi Marinucci.

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There's a conversation that crops up regularly in social justice circles on the role of allies in how we build our movements. In a sense, they are necessary: our rights, like it or not, rely on others seeing us as deserving of them. At the same time, insincere allies co-opt struggles or force oppressed people to constantly explain themselves. Sometimes ally-free spaces are necessary for exploring the dark sides of our realities – the ones that are complicated and murky and don't fit well onto a PR brochure. And some argue, controversially, that ally-only spaces are needed (white anti-racist groups come to mind) for allies to work through their privilege without further burdening people of colour.

I come to activism with enormous privilege. In fact, the very fact that I can choose whether to be an activist or not is an expression of privilege. I often tell people that I'm an activist because I can't possibly imagine what else to do with this privilege than to try and share it. It's true; I deeply believe that it is my responsibility as a person with privilege – and as a decent human being – to oppose any affronts to the basic humanity and dignity of any person(s). I'm a white, USian, native-born, English-speaking, (upper) middle-class, highly educated, thin, currently non-disabled, apparently cis-gendered girl-shaped person who's often read as het. I grew up within a supportive family in an urban, literate, relatively progressive milieu. So I am politicized out of a sense of fairness, not the circumstances of my life.

This complicates my activism. In many of the struggles with which I am involved, I have hardly been oppressed. My knowledge of homophobia is passive, based more on life in an obnoxiously heteronormative society than on a daily fear of gay-bashing or losing my job. I can't remember ever having been the target of intentional homophobia (biphobia, yes. But even that I could probably count on one hand). Even as a feminist, where by virtue of my perceived gender I am undeniably in a disadvantaged position, my privilege in other areas allows me a certain buffer. I can, for the most part, choose with whom I associate, for example, and I'm less bound to a particular job or setting than many others. I have to deal with objectification and casual sexism and people disbelieving my abilities or wanting to fit me into prescribed gender roles all the time. But in a lot of ways, I still have it lucky.

As a feminine, female-bodied person, as a queer person, as a gender non-conformist, I have a genuine stake in the outcomes of certain trans, queer, and feminist struggles. But I can hardly pretend that having a claim to a certain label means my interests should be allowed to dominate that struggle. The best example for me is the immigrant rights movement. I am a second-generation immigrant, and an immigrant myself, which I suppose give me some legitimacy to talk about immigrant rights. But I'm the “good” kind of immigrant: legal, educated, linguistically and culturally assimilated, healthy, and so on. I have to come to the struggle as an ally to the folks for whom immigration is a true hardship. It is possible that making the system work for them will mean improvements for me, but that is not my primary goal. My immigrant identity is only a source of some empathy and 101-level knowledge, not a driving factor in my understanding of the movement's goals.

I want to suggest that we have to accept a blurring of the lines between allies and “genuine” oppressed folks. In fact, I think we need a new language that can talk about the important difference between the oppressions we face and the identities we hold. We've had some productive conversations in this space on queer heterosexuality. I'd argue that, in that case, claiming a queer identity (however justified) does not reduce one's straight privilege, just as a pre/non-op trans man's personal identification as male does not stop him from experiencing sexism based on society's perception of his presentation. In short, anti-oppression work is not the same as identity politics, and to conflate them is to obscure the effects of intersectionality and the extremely varied experiences and struggles that we each face.

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The majority of academics and policy-makers, when they refer to peace, mean the absence of war, and in this, the absence of military conflict. Further, many argue that since the end of WWII, the world has seen a decrease in the number of armed conflicts. This is arguable in itself, since the number of civil conflicts, outside of rich nations, remains persistently high, but it can also be challenged on a different level. Across the globe, citizens are still fighting on a daily basis, including to feed themselves and their families, combat unemployment and lack of housing, as well as struggling with various forms of psychological and physical abuses. And women are often on the frontline of this different type, and yet no-less, if not more, harmful war.

Cambodian Women’s Rights Activist and Opposition Political Party Member, Moo Sokooa, summed up the situation in a recent article, “despite progress made by governments and NGOs the world over to raise public awareness and to change society’s attitude toward violence against women because of their gender, crimes committed against women and girls remain pervasive. […] statistics show a picture that should alarm us all […].” Now, we must ask ourselves the following question: how come, after 60 years of ever-growing international institutions, conventions, and legal frameworks, targeting injustices (including those faced by women specifically) are we observing persisting, and even increasing, inequalities and discrimination?

Despite progress made in the empowerment of women, and especially with the “global development effort” of the last decades, it remains limited. Women remain subject to male physical domination, lower education, and little access to political decision-making roles. And this situation exists in all countries around the world, from the economically poorest to the richest. There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon - still weak legal frameworks, poorly implemented policies – as well as other multiple layers and interconnections, which I do not pretend to include and explain altogether in this short essay. What I would like to focus on here, using my own perspective, including my short-term experience in one “developing” nation, Cambodia, is one crucial foundational issue: the social construction of sexual and gender roles, how they lead to discrimination against women, influence women themselves, and alter their sense of power over their own lives.

I take here one example, that of sexual violence against women in Cambodia. In this country, one out of four women lives with violence in the home or has witnessed gender-based violence of one form or another. Many have been, and continue to be, daily victims of incest, torture and gang rape. As reported by Adhoc, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association and one of the leading NGOs in the country, in July, there were 201 rape cases identified during the first 5 months of 2009, out of which 134 cases (66%) concerned minors (under 18 years old). Moreover, out of these 134 cases, 28 involved girls under 10 (20.8%) and 106 involved victims aged from 10 to 17 years (79.2%). The actual number of these crimes is higher, as many cases are not voiced by the victims themselves or even reported by the local authorities, with agreements on compensation often reached between families of the victims and the perpetrators.

How come this is still happening when local authorities publicly claim their support for women’s rights, with the government having had a Women’s Affairs Ministry for more than 15 years, and with the international community supporting women’s empowerment for over two decades (I define “international community” here as involving all politicians who govern states, the international legal codes that they are supposed to abide by, as well as the network of international institutions and transnational NGOs)? I have only been working in Cambodia for 7 months, so I will not pretend to speak with absolute authority on the matter. Nonetheless, living and working abroad has made me realize how much in Cambodia, as in many countries around the world, discrimination inflicted on women and either directly or indirectly accepted by women themselves, remains fundamentally driven by socially-constructed gender roles, created in the past, perpetuated, and continuously re-created throughout our contemporary times. There remains a strong culture of fundamental disbelief and disregard towards women’s qualifications, expecting them to subordinate themselves to men. Both men and women will state the opposite: young girls are increasingly sent to school, and many women choose to work and become part of decision-making processes. Yet, young girls remain the first ones not to attend schools if the families are facing economic hardship, women are still seen as having to take care of the household chores whilst also remaining publicly silenced and heavily objectified and expecting to be “taken care of” by men. If they do enter the workforce, they are also directly or indirectly made to believe that they should not create strong “waves” in the public realm.

Further, this is a view which is transmitted to both men and women, through traditional family roles as well as via the media and pop culture coming from within and outside the country. Korean culture has been very popular amongst the younger generation for several years (after the Thai influence in the 1990s). I am astonished on a daily basis at the “inferior” and sexualized image of women, brandished as the “real feminine Asian women,” transmitted through Korean – as well as other Asian and “Western” - music, films, magazines, and fashion. The structure of society – as well as all the men, women and children in it – are profoundly influenced by this. In the example taken above of sexual abuses, there remains a strong sense of shame or fear of the power of the perpetrators and the authorities. Women often remain deeply socialized into not believing in their own sense of worth and in the power they have to bring about change for themselves, their families, and societies at large. Not only is this the case in the terrible situation of sexual abuse, but it is also true for all the domains which govern women’s, and all human beings’, lives: involvement in the private and public spheres, social, political, and economic life.

As a First Lady and as the only woman leading the team responsible for the drafting of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her biography: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home […] they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he (sic) lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” This statement underlines what is at the very heart of what social scientists, including feminists, have long recognized about human power and social change - that the process of empowerment stems from women’s consciousness of their individual worth and power to act together to bring change. Empowerment is not something that can be done “to” or “for” women. Empowerment is about women realizing the “power within” themselves and acting individually and together with other women to exercise “power from and with” each other, thereby gaining “power to” act as agents and fundamentally change the way conservative masculine-oriented societies function.

If this very recognition makes the role of any activists (including international human rights advocates) limited, it nonetheless does not render them absolutely irrelevant. Nevertheless, in this, we must seriously take into account the point made above; especially the extent to which the process of development, and women’s personal development specifically, takes a diversity of pathways, long-term and unpredictable ones. Development has been a major item on world leaders’ political agenda for nearly six decades now, yet there are still many fundamental needs that need to be met in terms of human development. Taking the example of Cambodia, the country suffered the combination of a civil war, a US-led coup and a genocide in one decade (the 1970s), followed by foreign invasion and control for the next decade, during the remaining of the Cold War (Vietnam invaded in 1979, ousted the Khmer Rouge from power and retained control of the country, with Soviet support, throughout the 1980s). This ended in the early 1990s when, after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia saw an outpouring of United Nations and wider civil society political, financial and technical support. This foreign support never stopped and has kept increasing ever since. Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is today the second-ranked city in the world in terms of number of NGOs, after Kigali in Rwanda. And yet, despite this incredible generosity and human rights consciousness, we still see today in Cambodia increasing human rights abuses including daily rapes, psychological violence, and the lack of freedom of speech. Here, we need to ask a crucial question: what can the international community do to help bring more fundamental change to this persistently depressing situation?

Many academics, including Andrea Cornwall, writing in Pathways of women's empowerment (July 2007), argue that, “the dominant thinking about women and development has become mired in a progressive-sounding orthodoxy that fails to engage with the realities of women’s experience and aspirations around the world.” If this is indeed “dominant thinking,” then in practice, it is increasingly resisted by an approach that wants and pushes to “engage with the realities of women’s experience and aspirations.” This more practical approach makes us refocus our attention on individuals’ own experiences and how everyone can assist others in pushing people along their own path of empowerment. Further, it calls for defining empowerment, as Naila Kabeer puts it, in Pathways of Women’s Empowerment (www.pathwaysofempowerment.org), as a “journey without maps”, and even a set of multiple journeys. Each “journey without maps” is to be one of self-discovery and expression, one on which horizons shift as the terrain changes. And it is indeed a horizon, in other terms, a long-term journey, with short and medium term impacts, but maybe not as concrete and predictable as we have maybe let ourselves believe too much until now. Further, it is a thinking which, when put into action, requires a combination of time, great skills and experience, as well as incredible commitment to women and their culture.

Yet here, one has to work within the institutional structure of today’s world: the demand for speed, visible results, and efficiency, as well as existing mainstream development agencies working with local authorities and elites, all holding their own political agendas. Fast-track and “cold” agency programs and government policies continue to be rolled out by “experts” over any terrain, with “power” thus turned from a structural relation into a transferable commodity, shifted away from the actual agents of change, and “choices” made less by determining and expressing the parameters of the possible than by selecting options made available by bureaucratically-led development intervention. I am certainly not making the point that this is the case everywhere and that individuals within these agencies are not doing all they can to serve the interests of the most discriminated. However, one main approach which has been taken in the last decades has some drawbacks which have gradually fixed the very limits of our “power to empower”. I take here two examples which I have encountered during my time here: microfinance projects and political quotas.

Firstly, in the last decade, “empowerment” has come to be increasingly linked to microfinance, economic projects that give women small loans and enlist them in small-scale business activities such as producing and selling traditional handicrafts or food products (see the following link, for instance, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microfinance). I myself was all for microfinance when I first began reading about and studying it at University. After several months of working here I have come to realize that this approach, as any, cannot be an all-encompassing “tool” or “channel” for empowerment, and that it has its own limits regarding how much it can actually promote women’s “own chosen paths.” Whether small loans actually enhance women’s “agency” and “choices” depends as much on the terms of their contract (how the women actually chose to enter the activity, continued assistance and mentorship, dialogue etc…), as on what they decide to do with their money and experience gained in the short and long-terms. If involvement in business activities can be very relevant to women interested or skilled in such projects, it is not for all. Further, even for women desiring to enter business activities, we must keep in mind that financial independence is indeed central to attaining one’s personal objectives, but one’s personal objectives cannot be limited to financial independence. Strict focus on the “money” side of microfinance risks making us conflate self-empowerment with economic empowerment. Yet, while empowerment is about expressing the entirety of one’s potential, monetary security is a tool to attain this. Further, economic empowerment itself has impacts on family and social dynamics. Promoting women’s empowerment must take into account existing structures and relationships, as well as men and children’s rights. Finally, we must be careful that NGOs are not fixated as the sources of (economic) power and women as their unquestioning recipients. Women’s “liberation” from traditional gender roles would then actually just be turned into another form of “social imprisonment,” with their own strategies, objectives and visions (partly) silenced by organizations speaking “for them.”

This brings me to the second aspect I have been working on and researching: political involvement of women. In recent years, this has become a crucial item on political agendas of major institutions as well as governments. Until now, the emphasis has been on increasing numbers, quotas, and percentages of women in politics. However here, we must stop and ask whether demanding greater representation of women within flawed political structures is what will do the trick. In many countries, including in Cambodia, the numbers have increased, the percentages have been bumped up, and yet, discrimination persists, at all levels: women still do not speak out, voice their personal concerns and opinions too little, and avoid critically assessing existing conservative male-dominated policies and legislations. As Ana Alice Costa from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment team in Brazil points out, making political institutions more responsive and accountable is about more than just getting larger numbers of women into politics. This is simply a first step towards addressing fundamental inequalities. The women now involved might still be voicing and reproducing the opinion of the strongest, sidelining the interests and rights of the poorest and most discriminated against in development of policies, and thereby reifying the very structures which perpetuate such inequalities, including those based on gender.

Power issues lie at the very heart of politics - its conduct and content. Therefore, we need to realize and bring attention to all political areas where sexual and gender-based power dynamics are very present. I come back here to my earlier example, with rape persisting as a tool of public male-domination, in times of armed conflicts especially. Today, we remain silenced and ignored by those for whom sexuality is a private matter, those for whom the only sexuality issues that matter are sexually transmitted infections and sexual violation, and those who advocate women’s empowerment at the same time as denying women the right to exercise choices over their own sexual, familial, and reproductive lives. Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, would have argued that we must think about respecting the private realm, and not discursively “box” people by publicizing and “confessing” every aspect of sexuality. I would agree with his point. However, I would also argue that today, if we are truly committing ourselves to campaigning against and ending gender-based discrimination, we do need to embrace a public perspective on gender and sexuality, and one that promotes a wider and more inclusive approach; one that refuses to treat and socialize all women into weaker and silent individuals, to be protected by men; and which accepts all men’s and women’s sexualities.

After decades of nationaldand international public policies and strategies on the promotion and respect of human rights, our world has indeed made some great improvements, particularly in terms of women’s rights. Women are more visible than ever as they increasingly hold decision-making roles in the business, social, and political worlds. Yet, major improvements are still required, as we also realize that while women are increasingly visible in power relations, they might not yet actually be heard and listened to, or even themselves believe in their power to have a personal control over their private and public lives. Thus, the capacity of women to have an impact on power dynamics is actually reduced and even further institutionalized as weak. To consider this, and understand how to go forward from this realization, we must stop, discuss, and question, between “experts”, as well as with the people who are directly concerned. We must broaden our horizons and adopt a fundamentally new approach: long-term unpredictable journeys, that focus on collectively promoting gender equity and all individuals’ sense of worth and chosen paths, based on lived experiences, rather than academic and cultural stereotypes, multiple and layered visions and versions of empowerment, with the concept of power as a force for a fundamentally more just and equal world.

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Herman Salton joins us from Open Democracy.

Face-covering prohibitions in Europe are typically passed on the basis of three arguments: security, women’s rights and secularism. Rational as they may seem, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny.

Fear has become the defining trait of contemporary Europe. A savage financial crisis, a single currency in disarray, Greece’s economic turmoil and doubts about further EU integration are good reasons to worry about the future. Yet these are epiphenomena of more fundamental troubles, for Europe’s systemic fears involve nothing less than the extent of her territorial and cultural boundaries. To put it bluntly, an aged Europe feels under threat from a world she once dominated, but which she never properly understood. It is this post-colonial world that is coming back to haunt her. And it is wearing a burqa.

A full veil with a grill through which women can see, this garment was originally introduced by the Taliban and quickly came to be seen in Europe as a sign of oppression, sexual discrimination and religious fundamentalism. Outside of Afghanistan, however, the burqa remains very unusual. Slightly more common, but still rare, is the niqab, where only a slit is left for the eyes. The headscarf, or hijab - a form of headgear that leaves the face uncovered - is by far the most widespread of Europe’s “foreign-looking” female apparels. In theory, these garments are subject to different legal treatments in Europe, with the hijab usually tolerated and face coverings increasingly restricted. As the French case suggests, however, in practice the difference is minimal - and shrinking.

Burqa = backward

Let us consider the ‘burqa’ first. In Europe, this word no longer refers to Afghan apparel, but has become a scary catchall for every form of female face-covering thought to be rooted in the Muslim religion (the parliamentary debates of several European countries are instructive on the point). This, however, is doubly incorrect, for neither the Afghan burqa, nor the niqab, are usually worn by Muslims. They stem from cultural rather than religious practices, and there is no trace of them in the Koran.

And yet, in a curious post-colonial turn, Islam has somehow become synonymous with face-coverings. There is no doubt that they are increasingly hated by Europe’s politicians and their voters (who is influencing whom is hard to say). In Belgium, the Lower House passed a ‘burqa’ ban by 136 to 0 in April 2010, with usually-at-war Flemish and Walloon politicians rejoicing that the law restored “a pride in being Belgian” (60% of the population support the ban). In France, President Sarkozy stated that the ‘burqa’ is “a sign of submission which is unwelcome here” and, on 19 May 2010, vowed to outlaw it (57% of his fellow citizens agree, and the bill became law in September 2010). After making history for prohibiting the construction of new minarets - a move that was endorsed by 58% of the population - some of Switzerland’s cantons are considering a ‘burqa’ ban, and so is the Dutch government (with 66% support). In Spain, some city councils (such as Barcelona) have banned the wearing of face coverings, while Zapatero’s Education Minister supports a ban on Muslim headscarves at school. Although he eventually opposed a formal prohibition, Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt stated that “we don’t need to hide our faces in this way here” and indicated that he did not wish to see more women in ‘burqas’ (53% of Swedes would introduce a ban). Finally, in Denmark, a government spokesperson made it clear that “burqas and niqabs don’t belong in Danish society”, while in Italy, politicians are unearthing fascist-era legislation in order to fine the handful of women wearing face-coverings there.

Such prohibitions are typically passed on the basis of three arguments: security, women’s rights and secularism. After 9/11, security is an especially serious concern, and since face coverings hinder identification and have occasionally been used to commit crimes (such as bank robberies), banning them sounds reasonable to many. “It is not about introducing any form of discrimination”, the Belgian MP who instigated the burqa ban bill said, “it is aimed at forcing people to make themselves identifiable”. After all, several countries already have laws requiring visible faces in public, it is argued, so the ban has nothing to do with ‘burqas’ or indeed religion - as a Dutch government spokesman put it, “It’s a safety measure: you don’t see who’s in it”. Women’s rights are also routinely used to justify a prohibition of face veils: “Burqas are contrary to the ideals we have of women’s dignity”, Sarkozy stated, suggesting that they are demeaning regardless of the wearer’s beliefs. Austria’s women’s minister agrees - “I consider the burqa as a sign of the submission of women”, she declared - while a German minister defined it as “a full-body prison”. Last but not least, face coverings are said to clash with Europe’s hard-won division between church and state. Having spent centuries fighting each other on religious grounds, most Europeans do not want to go back to a time when God, rather than the State, made decisions about public space. “Other countries accept, without any problem or debate, visible religious signs in the public sphere”, one French MP stated, “but it is not our case. We claim this choice; better still, we are proud of it”. Faced with fundamentalist Islam, a strong political signal was needed, a Dutch MP agreed, to “give a political answer to a political problem”.

Rational as they may seem, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. Security is of course important, but face veils can hardly be regarded as a major threat. If there is a genuine belief that someone under a ‘burqa’ is a terrorist, police can invoke existing stop-and-search laws on grounds of reasonable suspicion, and Europe’s few veiled women can be asked to lift them in certain situations (e.g. before entering a bank). There is, after all, a reason why the existing laws requiring clear faces in public remain mostly unapplied: not only are they invasive, they are also virtually impossible to enforce - and so much so that the proposed bans on face-coverings contain a plethora of curious exceptions (for funeral veils, carnival masks, motorcycle helmets, etc). Moreover, numbers just do not support the view of the burqa as a security issue. In Belgium, this garment is worn by only about thirty women (out of a population of half a million, 3% of which is Muslim). In Switzerland, estimates mention a hundred women covering their faces in total:“If you have seen a burqa”, a local journalist commented, “chances are the wearer was a rich tourist”. In Denmark, the centre-right government abandoned plans to impose a ban after discovering that only three women in the entire country wear the burqa (around 200 wear niqabs). In Italy (population 56 million), there are only a few hundred face-covered women, while in France (population 60 million and home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority), TV crews were at pains to find women wearing burqas (there are about 2,000 niqabs). Despite the stereotyped view of ‘burqa’-covered terrorists, security threats involving this piece of clothing are rare and Europe’s current witch-hunting climate makes it an unlikely catalyst for crime.

Women’s rights are crucial and certain forms of veiling have historically been associated with misogyny (not only among Muslims but in most patriarchal societies). Sociological research, however, suggests that a growing number of women - especially young ones - do want to wear coverings for a variety of reasons: out of rebellion, as a statement of identity or modesty, for religious or traditional motives, and even as a fashion statement (the so-called ‘Chanel veils’). Should we really be restricting women who choose to wear veils as a way of punishing those who force women to wear them? And will the day ever come when women can simply wear what they want, without any patronizing intervention from overwhelmingly male legislators (or from their husbands)? It is of course encouraging to see so much interest in (and defence of) women’s rights among Europe’s male MPs. Centuries of barely-concealed misogyny, however, suggest some caution when assessing such passionate calls, not least because the most vocal supporters of the ‘burqa’ bans are often the most unlikely proponents of women’s rights: not the left-leaning ‘feminists’, say, but right-wing parties (such as the UKIP in the UK and the Northern League in Italy) that typically have little female representation except for the position of an equality spokesperson (one wonders why women should have a monopoly on this post, but I digress). So in Holland, for instance, hard-line immigration minister Rita Verdonk loudly invoked women’s rights to oppose the burqa, but her ministerial record suggests that she was motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice more than anything else. The same can be said for Italian equality minister Mara Carfagna, whose personal story is instructive of how women’s rights are easily trumpeted for political gains by unlikely defenders of female equality. A former show-girl, she is a junior member in the male-dominated government of Silvio Berlusconi, a serial womanizer known for his sexist slurs who has openly admitted choosing his female aides on the basis of their physical appearance (he also dismissed Zapatero’s government, which contained equal numbers of men and women, as “too pink”).

Last but not least, secularism is an especially rickety argument, for one only needs to look at the de-facto dominance of public space that religion exercises in places like Poland and Italy, to see that Europe is hardly consistent when it comes to the separation of church and state. Who can credibly argue that the ubiquitous presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms is less of a threat to secularism than an individual’s attire? Moreover, such contradictions are by no means confined to traditionally Catholic countries. In Germany, certain states (such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) prohibit Muslim teachers from wearing the headscarf, but allow others to wear Christian clothing (such as the nun’s habit). And even in supposedly hyper-secular France, strict laïcité is, like in most of Europe, à la carte: the majority of Catholic churches still belong to the French state and the French President is still chanoine honoraire (honorary clergyman) of the Lateran basilica in Rome (he is also the Prince of Andorra, a place where Catholicism is the official religion). More substantially, in some French regions Muslim girls are made to unveil before entering a classroom with a Christian crucifix. France happily allows exceptions to laïcité grounded on strong religious feelings in places like Alsace-Moselle for 2.5 million people (less than 5% of the population). But it does not cater for the needs of its 5 million-plus Muslim minority (10% of the same population).

From colonizer to colonized?

Rather than being founded on rational arguments, therefore, Europe’s prohibitionist drives against the ‘burqa’ seem to stem from irrational fears. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the continent’s obsession with face coverings has less to do with security, gender equality or secularism, than with the three highly inflammable ingredients of post-colonial powerlessness, prejudice and guilt. They fuel the perceived image of the ‘burqa’ as backward and threatening, offering centre-stage to a marginal issue which is nevertheless symbolic of more systemic problems afflicting the continent.

Europe’s perceived powerlessness is problematic because it follows several centuries of almost unlimited dominance. Having lost its worldwide military and political primacy, and having had to surrender territories and peoples in spades, the continent is deeply nervous about its future. Economically, it feels threatened from the East (by China and Japan) as well as from the West (by America), while the South is quickly picking up too. Demographically, Europe has obvious problems adjusting to new migratory trends which, unlike in the past, it can no longer properly control. Two reactions are possible here, one forward-looking (to accept change and adapt to it, while remaining faithful to one’s history and ideals) and the other defensive (to refuse change and even deny it is happening). The burqa bans suggest that Europe is choosing the latter, preferring to conservatively cling onto its (revered) past, rather than deal with the (uncertain) present and (scary) future. This is not unprecedented: national, ethnic and religious communities routinely resist change. The continent’s problem, and the source of most of its identity issues, is that neither Europe as a region, nor the various European states, have ever been (or can easily be constructed as being) homogeneous. Indeed, Europe has always been multi-cultural - one only needs to drive from Portugal to Poland to realize that the continent’s linguistic, religious, and ethnic variety could hardly be greater. Perhaps uniquely, Europe is also home to distinctive national cultures and identities, which is why it has been savaged by wars until the economic interdependence of the twentieth century rendered them counter-productive. So the idea of a ‘common past’ and ‘imagined European community’ allegedly under threat from burqa-wearing ‘immigrants’ is particularly shaky.

Unifying a continent through fear

Isn’t this precisely where the ‘unifying’ character of the ‘burqa’ comes in? In the same way that diverse political groups, both on the left and on the right, find a common cause at the national levels by attacking this garment, so heterogeneous and divided Europeans are constructing a sense of common identity by banning it. In this context, it does not matter that there are only a handful of ‘burqas’ in the whole of Europe - after all, there were only four minarets in Switzerland before the passage of the 2009 referendum, and little appetite for more. What matters is the perception of the ‘burqa’ as problematic and non-European, thus creating an impression that there is such a thing as authentic ‘Europeanness’. The process employed by several European countries is instructive of this, for the political and journalistic exploitation of a few minor cases has managed to convince public opinion that the continent is facing a ‘burqa’ emergency, when in fact statistics suggest that the number of women wearing it is negligible (and declining). This inconvenient circumstance has not been raised. Indeed, at no stage has there been any systematic examination of the numerical impact of the ‘burqa problem’ in Europe. Legislators, officials, government-appointed sages and journalists are not bothering with it. Why? Because Europe’s problem - and the reason behind the bans - has never been the ‘burqa’.

This brings us to the second contributing factor to Europe’s fears: the prejudices about the world it once dominated of Europe’s politicians. As Michael Pritchard reminds us, “Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed”, and there is no doubt that such negatives abound among European MPs. They invest first and foremost in the sign itself: “The burqa is an element of submission and alienation, even if it is not perceived as such by those who wear it”, one French MP patronizingly stated during the debates. His Swiss counterpart agreed—“[s]omebody who walks around in a full-body veil is either doing it as a provocation or as a way of saying ‘I refuse to live with you’” - while a Swedish Christian Democrat commented that “[t]he burqa is un-hygienic and disgusting”. Fear (of the sign) and ignorance (of the facts) did not spare a Swiss government spokesperson either: “There may soon be an uncontrollable profusion of burqas on Swiss streets”, he worried. As the convenient confounding of veils with Islam suggests, however, ignorant prejudice quickly extends to the religion that is (erroneously) associated with face-coverings: “Western civilization is far superior to Islam”, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi notably stated, while a French justice minister worried that “[w]hen there are more minarets than churches, then France will no longer be France”. His president agreed: “We need to create a culturally French Islam and we have a moral responsibility to uphold European values”, Sarkozy stated, adding that face-coverings are contrary to “our values as a civilization”. Considering these high-level comments, it is perhaps unsurprising that a British journalist who decided to wear a full veil for a day found herself at the receiving end of anti-Islamic and racial insults. There is no doubt that the ‘burqa’ bans are democratic - they are a democratic expression of racism and xenophobia.

Some veils are worse than others

Post-colonial guilt is the third contributing factor to Europe’s anxiety. Because most Europeans recognize the devastating effects of colonialism and the fact that it blatantly contradicted the Enlightenment principles that the continent helped generate, they also theoretically acknowledge the need for equal rights to all - including their ill-treated colonial subjects. But there is a difference between a philosophical commitment to equality, on the one hand, and the reluctance of European politicians (and their voters) to provide it. Such reluctance is especially strong when a former colonial master sees its subjects coming to shore and expecting to be treated as equals, since this can reinforce a sense of threatened identity.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that what makes Europe uncomfortable is not so much its multicultural character, but the breakdown of the social hierarchy that used to segregate ethnic minorities from ‘autochthonous’ Europeans. After all, when Queen Victoria objected to the “importation of Negro servants into these kingdoms”, she did so not because of their colour, but because “they cease to consider themselves as slaves”. And given that France began the conquest of Algeria by forcibly unveiling local women in public squares, is it any wonder that many French people who are disturbed by the sight of Muslim headscarves in France are at the same time perfectly comfortable with Catholic nuns’ veils? When two scantily-dressed women decided to protest the French ban by wearing niqabs and little else, they attracted the enthusiastic appreciation of the Parisian male population (the so-called Niqa-Bitch video is a popular YouTube hit).

The riddle for Europeans then becomes: how can we resist the process of social mobility for erstwhile colonial subjects, while at the same time retaining some pretence of equality? And here is the answer: by eliminating the most visible signs of ‘foreignness’ - ‘burqas’ and minarets, for instance - from the public space, claiming that they go against supposedly common European ‘values’ (such as security, women’s rights and secularism). Given that the Enlightenment makes it hard for Europe to get rid of ‘foreigners’ altogether, the continent instead bans their most conspicuous symbols in a drive towards assimilation. This supports a xenophobic conception of national belonging, yet one of a peculiar kind: post-colonial, and thus distinctively European. For if the Enlightenment originated in Europe, the latter was also the cradle of colonialism: and the colonial spirit is the legitimate child of the refusal of diversity. Unable to deal with the root causes of the ‘burqa’ issue - i.e. Europe’s reluctance to absorb immigrants - Europeans content themselves with attacking symbols. And since a ‘burqa’ scares more than a headscarf (unless you are French), it is the former that usually gets banned, for this garment ludicrously symbolizes the ‘colonial’ takeover of Europe by ‘foreigners’ and brings back uncomfortable memories and guilt complexes that are all mixed up with economic uncertainty, racism and xenophobia.

The result is a series of seemingly general laws that are nevertheless meant to hit one community only. Thus, none of the European bans directly mention the ‘burqa’ (targeting one specific group would be illegal) but generically refer to ‘face coverings’ instead. Since this would also outlaw items that Europeans like, however, explicit exemptions are inserted, with the result that carnival masks, motorcycle helmets, funeral coverings, wedding veils - anything, in sum, except for ‘burqas’ - are admitted. This logic was also used in 2004 in France: although the public and parliamentary debates leave absolutely no doubt that the anti-veil legislation targets the Muslim headscarf, months of verbal acrobatics among MPs produced a law that has a veneer of generality (it prohibits ‘conspicuously worn religious symbols at school’) while exempting those signs regarded as acceptable (such as tattoos, Christian crosses, piercing and non-religious symbols), so far disproportionately impacting on the law’s real target (the Muslim veil).

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear”, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote. Unfortunately, there are worrying indicators that Europe is becoming prisoner to its own fears. The continent is going through a veritable identity crisis where the willingness to exclude the most visible manifestations of Islam reflects a desire for self-reassurance about its own image that is, however, trapped in a circularity.

The roots of Europe’s ‘burqa’ obsession do not lie with an unprecedented influx of ‘foreigners’ into an allegedly mono-cultural and monotheistic land, but with the continent’s inability to value and build on its own unique linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. As for women’s rights, regulating female clothing is an unwise ground for championing them. Indeed, prohibiting women from wearing something is no better than compelling them to do so. It puts supposedly liberal Europe on a par with the world’s most repressive regimes. If sexual equality is so crucial to Europe’s MPs, they should start with more pressing tasks, for instance, ensuring that there is an equal proportion of women in European parliaments. That would truly be a ground-breaking measure to take, and one which the opportunistic champions of women’s rights are unlikely to support.

About the Author
Herman Salton is the author of Veiled Threats? Islam, Headscarves and Religious Freedom in America and France. You can find more of Herman's articles via Google Scholar or his website. His upcoming book, Arctic Host, Icy Visit, is about the continuing persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement outside the borders of China, looking specifically at the case of Iceland.

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Thank you for meeting us this morning and remembering to wear pants, TCMV.

Oh, my pleasure.

Congratulations on being the new head editor of Below The Belt. We have high hopes for you.

Well you know what they say, approval from imaginary shadowy bureaucrats is half the battle.

Indeed. Now, before you take on your new role we have some questions for you, in case a "situation" arises. As editor, your deeds and actions may be subject to scrutiny, and we need to--

Okay, I think know what this is about, and I'd rather just come out and say it.

I'm a socialist.

And not the mostly harmless "I think medicine should be cheaper" type Faux News likes to parade on their news programs as the scourge of the Amurrrican standard of living. No, I'm the wrongbad kind of socialist. The kind that reads Marx and listens to Rage Against The Machine and swears she gets it, dude. I've protested, rallied, passed out literature to classmates. I even learned to play the musical saw as a "sign of solidarity for the fire-forged beauty of the working class soul" because that's what you do when you have a B.A. in Performance Art and have never worked manual labor for minimal pay in your entire adult life. I'm over-educated, out of touch, and insulated by the abundance of liberal-minded family, friends, and teachers. It's a shame capitalism doesn't actually work. My sheer existence proves a pretty solid case for socialism as a pastime for privileged white people.

Let's skip the foreplay and dive right into the awkward post-coital processing. I have tried to draw parallels between my socialist ideals and my queer identity. Do I really need to elaborate on how and why it's hard to find steady work as an out trans persyn? Can you go ahead and just connect the dots without me having to number them? It's hard being queer in a recession. Behind door number 1 is the hope that by merit of your skill and luck in finding liberal employers, you may one day climb up the ranks and will use your experience and influence to make the workplace a safer place for those like you. Behind door number 2 is admitting that the system is corrupt and will oppress minorities of any kind, and even if we do "integrate" they'll just find someone else to put out on the streets and play keep away with their medicine, and that we can either help overthrow the system or one day contribute to the oppression. Pay no attention to Door Number 3. Stephen Fry's in there with his head on his desk. I'm not letting him out until he's had time to think about what he's done.

So I got these views and a plethora of avenues to express/influence them. I'm the editor in chief of this blog and co-founder of TransFix. Just replace all our writers with ones recruited from socialist publications, use TransFix funds to establish a Marxist library, be home in time for Robot Chicken and finish this sentence uninterrup--




God damn it. I knew I should've gone with Yu-Gi-Oh.

As a community organizer and activist, I am beholden to those that contribute their time and money to my causes. This is why I am hesitant, might even go as far to say likely to reject, the option to be a non-profit. Many well-meaning grassroots campaigns end up spending their days laughing politely at the jokes of their benefactors and choking down the shitty food served at fundraiser dinners. As of now I am accountable only to the community, and so far I'm keeping up my end of the bargain. I'm hosting events, creating spaces, submitting material that is in line with this blog's mission statement.

If I take a hard line socialist stance on my activism and shape my efforts in such a way I risk a) potentially alienating people within the very community I sought out to help, b) garnering support from socialist organizations that are not tied to or affiliated with the queer community, thus putting me in the position of serving two masters when I'm submissive at most two, three days a month, c) attracting opposition from groups within the queer community with differing agendas who will actively counter my efforts which I don't have time for, and d) leaves me open to receive twice as much "benefit" (as everyone who actively campaigns for a cause that effects them sees to benefit from its success) from my efforts than others in my organization which, on a personal level, makes me very uncomfortable.

While it is hard (for me) to fathom and even harder to accept, for many LGBT people integration into the kyriarchy is not a sign of defeat but a goal. This, for me, explains the Human Rights Campaign, the gender essentialism espoused by trans folk of generations previous, and Will & Grace. I disagree with this agenda and will say so to its face any time I am not acting on behalf of Below The Belt or TransFix (for the record, I consider my written contributions separate from my duties as editor). While serving in the capacity of such and such for blah blah blah, I will treat the spaces within my sphere as neutral territory, as hallowed ground.

As far as the trans community is concerned, my only politics is to win.

I believe it's possible to be anti-capitalist as a function to the causes I participate in. I do not ever intend to "profit" from my work, and if I ever receive compensation for my time and effort I will be ever so transparent about how much I received, what it was for and prove, if necessary, that I could not afford to pay bills, get around, etc without it. Any and all funds I raise will go towards the cause, and I'll back that shit up with receipts. If the big four-day camp TransFix is holding in the summer of 2011 can't be done at no cost to the attendees, I will bust my ass to make the admission equal to or less than the fare you spend for public transit. I will not accept money for any content published on this blog or any other blog within the queer blogosphere that I contribute to. If I'm caught cheating on my taxes, I promise it will be for trying to write a $2.50 metal kazoo off as a "business expense".

But is it really possible to have an anti-capitalist ethic, to implement it as a means of running an organization, without endorsing certain political tenets? I have no fucking idea. Personally, I believe so, but I also believe in chupacabras, the faked deaths of Elvis and Andy Kaufman, and I'm in a better mood when I have lots of soy in my diet. I'm not necessarily inclined to trust my own judgment on this. Feedback is most appreciated.

Whew. That felt good to get out. Okay. Next question.

Actually, we were just going to ask you if you had an e-mail address people could use to contact you about becoming a contributor or to voice comments/concerns with any of the content expressed on this blog.

Oh. Yeah. theycallmevroom@gmail.com

Thank you. Actually, I think that's all we needed to know.

I also got Ravenclaw in a "Which Hogwarts House Are You?" quiz, in case that's helpful.

You know people are still reading this, right?

Of course they are. They're waiting for my signature snappy comedic ending.

Well, I'm going to leave , thank you for meeting with me--

That's what she said! Booya! See you next time!

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So it's been a pretty incredible four years managing BTB, and it's time I step down. I remember quite clearly starting the forum with queeriously and a band of other friends -- outlawed, manontheside, residentgringa. I wanted to start BTB because I had moved away from a community where I could talk about topics like those we address in this forum. Little did I know that BTB would connect me with many other people from quite literally around the world that shared that same desire for a connection centered around dialogue. I really couldn't be happier with how BTB has turned out.

BTB is being left in extremely capable hands. TheyCallMeVroom has contributed and managed BTB for some time, and has some really amazing ideas of how to make BTB more dynamic and interactive. I'm so excited to see how BTB develops in the coming years.

Even though I'm retiring, I may still contribute from time to time...and I'll certainly be reading the forum. Catch you on the flip side.

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Let’s set the scene: my friend is studying abroad in Germany, and felt like going out to a few bars because she was living in a cramped apartment and just needed to get out. She was accompanied by a guy she didn’t particularly care for, but hey, it’s better than going out alone, right?

Maybe not.

She got tired so they decided to walk back home a little early, and somehow the topic of sex came up. Well, he brought it up.

Since this event was a situation that was regarding male/female relationships, I’ll continue along that line, but it definitely can apply to queer relationships as well. But for the sake of continuity, I will use an apparently heterosexual example.

Time for inserting misogynistic remarks! WOOO! Aren’t you excited?

Well, first thing he told her was that “sex is always about the man.”

Ummm. What the fuck. Sex is supposed to be consensual, right? RIGHT? I mean, if you’re only having sex to please one person, isn’t that a little...bad? Sex is about sharing intimacy. That’s right, SHARING. Yeah I used that word! Yeah I used caps lock! It needs to be big and obvious, because, you know, it’s true. Very, very true. You are forewarned that there may be more usage of the caps lock key of doom. For serious.

Well, as I was saying, sex should be consensual. If it’s “all about the man,” it seems a little like rape to me. As he was describing it, in his tone, IT SEEMS A HELL OF A LOT LIKE DATE RAPE. You feelin’ me? You feelin’ the caps lock? Well you better be, because this whole thing makes me pissed as hell. And you should feel the same way.

Second thing he told her was that he “would never give a woman oral sex, because that means she’s in control.” He also implied that women should give men oral sex, because, you know, it’s their fucking DUTY.

DUTY??? You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. No one needs to do anything they don’t want to do. If he doesn’t want to go down on a girl, he doesn’t need to. Maybe he doesn’t like doing it. Maybe he’s a little squicked by being that close to a woman’s vagina. Or maybe some other completely legitimate reason. Really any reason is legitimate, EXCEPT HIS. Maybe you don’t like giving women oral but you love it yourself. That’s cool. That’s completely fine. And if your partner likes to and wants to give you head, right on. It’s totally awesome for you. BUT YOU SHOULD NEVER EXPECT IT JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE A MAN AND THEREFORE YOU “MUST ALWAYS BE IN CONTROL.”

Feelin’ that caps lock? I am.

Again, this does not just apply to men. This applies to any relationship of any kind where one partner flat out expects the other partner to do anything and everything they ask, because they are somehow “superior” and therefore deserve it. (Just making sure you all remember.)

Oh wait, he said more...good lord I wish he would have learned to shut the fuck up by now. But apparently not...

To put it simply, he added in some last words before they got back to the apartment and she could escape his unbelievable misoginy. They were, and I’m paraphrasing, “Men should get to sleep with whoever they want. It’s an obvious thing. But no woman should do that. I want to sleep with virgins, not sluts.”

OOOOH...could this get any more fucked up? Probably, but this was the end of the line. FINALLY. She got home and didn’t need to listen to any more of this. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to comment on it. How are you possibly supposed to sleep with so many women when you only want to sleep virgin women, or at least women with enough discretion to not be considered a “slut”? I’m sure no woman meeting your expecations would sleep with a overwhelmingly sexist guy like YOU.

So sum this up...too give a little tl;dr...PEOPLE WHO EXPECT OTHER PEOPLE TO PERFORM SEX ACTS ON THEM ARE TOTAL FUCKHEADS. Yeah, I said “fuckheads.” IN CAPS LOCK.

Sex should be consensual. Sex should be reciprocal (as in you should talk with and agree with your partner about what you will and will not do together). And sex should should not carry a double standard between partners. If any of these things aren’t going down, you really shouldn’t be having sex with each other in the first place.


Kirk out.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist famous for his championing of the idea that sexual orientation is determined by biological factors. He discussed his latest book, Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: the Science of Sexual Orientation, which reviews over 600 scientific studies that have been undertaken on the question of sexual orientation over the last two decades.

According to LeVay, these studies lead unambiguously to one conclusion: pre-phenomenological biological factors (such as genes, hormones, and brain structure) lead to different levels feminization or masculinization of the brain, which determine whether one is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Unsurprisingly, gay and bisexual men are reported to have more feminine brain structures than straight men, while lesbian and bisexual women are alleged to be more masculine in that respect than heterosexual women.

Although LeVay provides a mass of evidence in support of this argument, I remain skeptical about theories purporting to explain human sexuality in biological terms.

Firstly, the studies that LeVay cites have focused on explaining sexual attraction to a particular gender – however, there is surely more to human sexuality than that! What about explaining attraction to specific body parts, forms of clothing or sexual practices – such as armpit fetishes, leather worship and BDSM? Most of the recent scientific studies completely ignore these kinds of phenomena, erasing from view diverse areas of human sexuality that are defined by more than just gender. Indeed, communities of desire have already been formed whose ideas about what is “sexy” supercede man-ness or woman-ness. Until biological studies provide explanations for the full diversity of human sexuality – for fetishes, kinks, and other all-too-common oddities – they will be inadequate.

Secondly, not only is there an empirical problem with this kind of research – it also ends up reinforcing the notion that what really matters in your sex life are your partner’s genitals. This obsession with which gender one is drawn to is a unique consequence of the homophobic society we live in. With attraction to men or women regarded as the most salient aspect of sexuality, the upholding of heterosexuality as an ideal (with homosexuality as a tolerable-but-stigmatized minority alternative) is greatly facilitated. If sexual and gender discourses in society prioritized other values, such as the maximization of pleasure or the development of deeper intra-communal connections, the classification of people according to which gender they are attracted to would diminish in importance. Therefore, biological studies of sexual orientation end up unwittingly supporting the heteronormative imperative to declare one’s desires in gendered terms.

Finally, the political implications of biological studies of sexuality are troubling. Bolstered by these scientific investigations, mainstream gay and lesbian movements in the West have based their arguments for sexual minority rights on the notion that homosexuality is an essentially un-chosen characteristic, akin to eye color. But this is a fundamentally conservative argument. To what extent can we really be positive about (homo)sexuality if we constantly insist on seeing it as un-chosen? I find it hard to believe that the stigma on homosexuality can be fully removed if the condition for legitimating it – legally, socially, and politically – is claiming that one has no agency in being gay. This implies that it would be profoundly wrong to choose to be homosexual, which in turn, suggests that there is something not quite right with homosexuality itself. Thus, the “no-choice” argument ends up maintaining a significant level of disgrace about homosexuality. It enables tolerance, on the basis of sympathy for a queer’s inadvertent lot in life, but it does not engender full-scale acceptance of homosexuality as a life-style that is positive in itself and even worth encouraging. In fact, it gives solace to those who would like homosexuality to remain a pitiable minority phenomenon, confined to the people whose brains have been “wrongly” masculinized or feminized. The revolution remains incomplete…

So if purely biological explanations of sexuality are deficient, for both empirical and political reasons, what are some alternative ways that sexuality could be conceptualized? How can we expose the profound influence of coercive societal pressures (patriarchy, heteronormativity, forced coupling/monogamy, capitalism etc…) on our sexual development, while also recognizing that there is a deeply personal, almost unconscious, aspect to our sexualities that is robustly resistant to social molding? How can we open possibilities for political agendas which have sexual freedom, the undoing of patriarchy, and the total de-stigmatization of sexual minorities as their goals, while remaining faithful to empirical evidence and people’s lived experiences?

The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling provides an interesting alternative. In her book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, she outlines a Systems Theory of human sexual development, which obliterates the distinction between the physical organism (our skin and bones, blood, tissue, hormones and genes) and its environment. According to Fausto-Sterling, our brain structures are fundamentally plastic: the newborn human being is by no means a “finished product,” and whatever bio-structural tendencies exist at that point, they are bound to be deeply affected by the social environment we live in – by its abuse of females and the feminine, by its homophobia, by the imperative to classify oneself as a man or a woman, by its obsession with monogamy and coupling, and by its fetishizing of money and profit. In fact, these social forces will undoubtably impact the way our brains work. It is therefore difficult – if not impossible – to tell what kind of human sexuality would be created if these social forces were removed. Perhaps we could evolve into a non-monogamous, non-patriarchal, multi-gendered, and polysexual species?

Similar possibilities can be found in Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Put simply, his model of human sexual development posits that everyone is born with “polymorphously perverse” sexual drives, which means that humans could be attracted to virtually anything, so long as it provides a level of somatic pleasure and erotic excitement. As children, for example, we live a “polymorphously perverse” existence, finding pleasure in potentially everything from breastfeeding to cutting our toenails. The role of our families – and the society of which they are a part – is to channel these sexual drives into a “heterosexual” and procreative direction, by intervening and negatively sanctioning instances of “perverse” sexuality. By the time we reach adulthood, many but not all of us will have been “appropriately” molded. Admittedly, Freud’s approach can be used for reactionary purposes: it could lead to increased tightening of familial and social control, with the goal of wiping out “perverse” sexuality. Or it could be used to raise consciousness about reclaiming the polymorphous sexual drive and undoing the processes that have molded people into a patriarchal, heteronormative, monogamous and two-gendered species. The choice is ours…

To conclude, the kinds of biological studies cited and promoted by Simon LeVay have three major flaws: (1) they ignore important aspects of human sexuality that are not necessarily gendered (fetishes, kinks etc…); (2) they reinforce the heteronormative view that the gender one is attracted to is the most salient aspect of sexuality, which greatly facilitates the promotion of heterosexuality as an ideal; and (3) they serve as the grounds for justifying homosexuality on a conservative basis, by portraying it as a minority alternative that people have no choice or control over, a phenomenon that can therefore never spread wider in society.

But perhaps more importantly, the idea that our sexualities are determined by pre-phenomenological biological processes significantly circumscribes the possibilities for any kind of fundamental change in the gender and sexual system. If we are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual before we even know it, how is it possible to critique the obsession with the gender one is attracted to, or the gendered structure of sexual relations in society? How can we question the drive for coupling and monogamy – if we continue to believe that we are pre-programmed for it? And how can we criticize the distribution of gendered roles in society, if women’s and men’s biological differences on matters such as spatial skill, linguistic competence, and leadership ability are presumed? Fausto-Sterling and Freud offer alternative conceptualizations of sexuality that enable some of these questions to be answered, and it is my hope that the researchers and activists of the future will take their lead.

***For More Information***

If you would like to find out more about Simon LeVay's work and the biology of sexual orientation, sex, and gender, his website provides many useful resources. For a powerful critique of the biological approach to sexual orientation, see Janet Halley's article, "Sexual Orientation and the Politics of Biology: A Critique of the Argument from Immutability." Anne Fausto-Sterling has attempted (with much success, in my opinion) to combine biological and sociological research. You can explore her many articles and books via her personal website. Sigmund Freud has engendered much controversy among feminists and LGBT activists - you will find that this Wikipedia page provides a good introduction to his work. Finally, for more on conservative arguments for LGBT rights, please see this previous Below the Belt post.

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