Posts tagged with “sexual liberation”

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Some thoughts on the gender binary

Because I’m always looking for new and exciting ways to procrastinate on homework, a few months ago I spent a ridiculous portion of a day reading an argument between a radical feminist and a hell of a lot of people she’d pissed off about whether or not transwomen are women, and on that day I wrote the bulk of this post. I don’t really want to comment on that because to me it is patently obvious that transwomen are women, and transmen are men, and I can’t be bothered ruminating on why for the moment. Nonetheless, I did get thinking about a related issue – on the link (or lack thereof) between biology and gender, and how the hell we’re supposed to express the infinite variation that exists within humanity in this regard considering the lacklustre number of words that English provides. See, I feel in part that the English language just does not express concepts around gender in ways that people who are committed to liberation from the gender binary would like. We have a very limited array of words, really. We have “man” and “woman” – what do either of those really mean? We have pronouns, “he” and “she”, to match. Then we have words for biology – “penis” and “vagina” and so on. This is not an extensive repertoire, and it’s going to get us into trouble. This occurred to me once when I was reading a post on Tumblr, about sex… the thing about this post that impressed me was that whoever did it avoided using the words “man” or “woman” entirely, in favour of “vagina-owner” and “penis-owner”. I was truly astounded by this person’s commitment to intersectionality, and strict avoidance of binding people’s gender identities to their genitalia (and really, it wasn’t a post about gender identities in the slightest, so fair enough!). Politically it’s commendable, but the problem is that this is a really impractical way of speaking. Short of a massive social revolution, these terms are never, ever going to catch on, even if they arguably should (or at least other terms that express the same concepts). They’re just really clunky, and virtually no one would feel comfortable using them. Why do you think that out of all the proposals for gender-neutral pronouns there have been, not a single one has ever caught on? Linguistic prescriptivism has never worked, and I really don't think it’s suddenly about to now – these terms are too artificial to take hold, at least in this era. I think most people – or at least most oppression-minded people – consider “man” and “woman” to be gender identities, rather than synonymous with “penis-owner” and “vagina-owner” respectively. For a start, a large number of people (I read somewhere that it was 0.1% of the world’s population – so seven million worldwide) have anatomies that fall between that of your standard “penis-owner” and your standard “vagina-owner”. They usually get assigned one identity or the other regardless. There’s no reason society should be limited to “man” and “woman”, either; there are a minority of people who define themselves as neither, and even within these huge umbrella categories of “man” and “woman”, there are lots of “identities”, in the sense of codes of behaviour and the like. What I mean to say is, gender identities really don’t consist of a binary, man/woman – there’s a lot of fluidity, a lot that’s really indefinable, a lot that you can’t confine with narrow little categories. Words come and go defining all kinds of subcultures and identities, some which last, some which don’t. I think it’s likely (though not certain) that in a truly liberated world, there would be no such concept of “transgenderism”. Gender identities would be so fluid, and not connected with a binary at all. There would be no “man” or “woman” (those terms being so broad as to be useless), and thus no “transmen” or “transwomen”. You can expand the world of gender identities, and people’s freedom to be whoever they want, to such a point that the words “man” and “woman” are completely meaningless as gender identities. But biology stays the same. There will always be people with penises and there will always be people with vaginas, and there will always be people whose anatomy doesn’t fit either norm, and there will be these three groups of people until the human race is extinct or has evolved into something completely different – for our intents and purposes, until the end of time. Perhaps a truly liberated society – one in which neither gender identity nor biology could confer any privilege or disadvantage – wouldn’t care enough about biology to use short, one-word terms. I mean, people are divided into right-handed and left-handed too, but the only short terms for those are slangy (“righty” and “lefty”) and have other meanings besides – people do not really care about handedness. So then, we’d have a multitude of fluid, overlapping gender/sexual identities such that “man” and “woman” are meaningless, and a society in which people do not care enough about others’ genitalia to assign words to them any shorter than the “penis-owner” and “vagina-owner” of the Tumblrer I mentioned ages ago. I don’t think such a world is imminent; I don’t even think such a world is likely to be possible until decades, maybe centuries, after communism is achieved – if it’s possible at all. There is an important reason for this: the phenomenon called “the linguistic straitjacket”. There are many, many languages with gendered pronouns – languages that force you to categorise people as basically masculine or basically feminine in almost every single sentence you can think of. Unless these languages evolve away from gendered pronouns, the world I’m talking about could never happen, and pronouns take forever to evolve. Before standardisation, centuries, and afterwards, well. Take your pick! Millennia! Infinity! But think about how much English changed between Old English times and Geoffrey Chaucer (around 350 years) and how little our English has changed from how it was 350 years ago in 1662. For the evolution of our pronoun system, this is Bad News. I think in English we can see a potential way out, though – singular “they” has risen massively as a gender-neutral pronoun in the last few decades, and it is possible that people could start using singular “they” even when the gender is “known”. From that point on, “he” and “she” could fade out of usage entirely. We’d have to get a new third-person plural pronoun – I’d say pattern extension from a second-person plural pronoun could do it (and I think the second-person plural pronoun’s going to come much earlier! but for instance, say “y’all” became standard; “them all” or something could follow) – but once we had, bingo, problem solved. In languages like Spanish I don’t see much of a way out at all, because of every single noun in the whole entire language being either masculine or feminine. It’s true that English lost its system of grammatical gender entirely, but there are concrete reasons behind that development in English that don’t exist in Spanish (like where the stress falls – in English, as in Germanic languages in general, early; in Spanish, as in Romance languages in general, late). So, I don’t know. Clearly the solution is that we all start speaking Finnish, and avoid the problem entirely. No, I’m just kidding. In all honesty, I realise that this post is all about concerns that probably won’t exist for centuries after all of us are dead, but the question I was starting with was this: what actually is manhood, and what is womanhood? If you argue, as I do, that manhood is not just synonymous with penis ownership and womanhood not synonymous with vagina ownership, then the words have no intrinsic meaning at all, only socially-constructed meaning. And what exactly is that meaning? As soon as you move away from these biological definitions, and discard any kind of binary, you embark on a trajectory towards discarding the words entirely – even if, due to the poverty of our language in general and the fact that this unsatisfactory state of affairs is standardised, this is a process that could take millennia to run its course.

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On the difficulty of saying what you want to say

I suppose that if you’ve read this blog, it should come as no surprise to you that gender and sexual politics is one of my biggest fields of interest. Obviously I have a lot of political fields of interest – I became a Marxist primarily because I couldn’t see how we could stave off environmental destruction under capitalism, for instance – but over the last year or so, it’s been mainly gender and sexual politics I’ve been reading about. (Although I did read a book called Ecology and Socialism over the summer, too. It was quite good.)

I think the main reason I’ve gravitated towards these issues is that it seems to affect me more immediately, it seems to concern me much more. Climate change and other mechanisms of environmental destruction are terrible, and will affect me in the end in fifty years’ time when the climate is absolutely fucked, but there’s not much I can do about that. There’s a lot that a post-revolutionary world could do about that, and that’s why I’m a socialist, but in the meantime there’s not much I can do. I can read about it, but where’s the imperative when a revolution is nowhere close? It’s a problem, but I only have so much time anyway in which to read and this is how I feel.

Gender and sexual politics grabs more of my attention because it isn’t just the macro-level on which it exists. The personal is political, as the feminist slogan goes and this is really true, in a way that “the actions of one individual can really do a lot to save the environment” just isn’t. No, one individual can’t liberate all of humanity, but individuals can and do make conscious choices about how to treat one another. You can choose not to be misogynistic or homophobic or generally an asshole in a way that you can’t really choose to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle (unless you have bucketloads of time and money, which most people obviously don’t).

So all of this means that I tend to grapple with questions of gender and sexuality much more. Over the last year or two, I have had to grapple with questions such as – What constitutes rape, and what doesn’t? What do you with actions which seem to, arguably, perhaps, fall into some murky grey area? What do you do if someone rapes you but you still like them? Is it unprincipled to forgive? Do open relationships work, or are we all too brainwashed by capitalistic values of possession and jealousy? Do closed relationships work, or is that an even worse idea than open ones? What is the connection between sex and power? It seems to me that sex is always a power struggle in some way or another, but it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? Is this not just because of oppression?

And I’d love to write about so many of these questions – and sometimes I do – but it’s difficult because of course, I want to discuss all of these questions in relation to my own life, in relation to people I’ve known, and there comes a point at which it seems to cross a line. That is, if I was only talking to strangers, my experiences would be obviously political – “this is how women suffer under patriarchy,” or something, and similarly if I only talk to my best friends they know me well enough that they can tell the difference between me seeking a confidant (or yelling at them, as the case may be) and me making a political point. But then there are people between those two extremes – people who are friends but not good friends, or people who know me but not well – and I get worried that what starts as me trying to explain a political point sounds like me opening up way too much to someone who doesn’t know me well enough to feel comfortable with that.

The awkward thing about “the personal is political” is that by necessity, when you start talking like that politics ceases to be something impersonal. It ceases to be something about which you can intellectualise, expect to be patted on the back for being so clever and go home to your own world, which is an entirely different sphere. It brings the two spheres together, so suddenly politics isn’t a sphere but it’s life. All your life! And most people aren’t like this – an irritatingly high proportion of people resent talking about politics at all because they claim it’s “divisive”, as if we should be getting along with scumbaggy people anyway – so it comes across as weird, comes across like you’re far too open a person, when really, you just want everyone to understand that the way they live their lives is important, not just what they do in their “political time”.

It’s also ironic that I feel weird about this because honestly, my personal experiences are probably the only original thing I have to contribute to the discussion – I’m sure every point I could think up has been thought up and argued before! So anyway, maybe I should seek to write these posts a little more often, and decide that if someone who reads them is uncomfortable about that I don’t give a shit what they think anyway, but it seemed that the reasons why I felt uncomfortable were important too, and I should comment on those. Basically… the personal is political, and that will always be true, but it’s an unpleasant reality for most people. Still, perhaps it’s a reality people should have to face up to more often.

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Why support same-sex marriage?

For most people, supporting equal marriage rights is just a matter of common sense. “Opposite-sex couples can get married, but same-sex couples can't! This is discriminatory and wrong.” To this I say – exactly right; bingo; top of the class except oh wait not really because almost everyone gets this. It's pretty simple.

Most opposition to equal marriage rights comes from arch-conservatives, the kinds who are all, “zomg but the Bible says no!!” (fun fact: it doesn't. It does, however, say quite a lot about how virtually all rich people are evil, and it's funny in a totally non-coincidental way how little gets made of that.), or the kinds who – like my grandmother (who is my usual benchmark for arch-conservativism) – go, “I honestly don't think that God cares one fig who people have sexual relations with, but marriage is an institution that has existed for millennia, and to tamper with it would just result in SOCIAL CATASTROPHE!!” (Just like when marriage ceased to refer to the trading of women like livestock from fathers to husbands! That was pretty damn disastrous; let's not make the same mistake, and tamper with the institution of marriage, again.)

But to tell the truth, if anyone even reads this blog it's not arch-conservatives, so those arguments are somewhat pointless here. No, what this post seeks to address is the supposedly “progressive” argument against equal marriage rights – that in reinforcing the nuclear family, marriage is an oppressive institution that should be abolished, not expanded.

There's no doubt in my mind that the nuclear family is an oppressive institution. For a start, to be divided into nuclear families isolates us, atomises us; rather than having socially-necessary tasks like child-rearing, cooking, cleaning etc. done by a broader collective, it forces each individual household to do these things itself. The vast majority of the time, these tasks fall to women. It's not just for ideological reasons that they fall to women; as well, childcare is expensive (thus unaffordable for many couples), women continue to be paid much less than men on average (and if it's decided that one partner has to quit their job, it's going to be the lesser-paid, isn't it?), and in order to have the babies in the first place, it's women who have to endure pregnancy and childbirth, so it's likely that they'll need time off work. Then, the household being a relatively self-contained unit, it's really socially isolating; it makes us forget that we belong to a collective, and retreat into ourselves, which serves the imperatives of capitalism nicely – we forget that we're powerful in numbers, but remember that we're powerless alone. So instead, we seek solace in our partners... which ends pretty badly for most people, considering that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, and many more are highly miserable, or end before the marriage stage even comes along.

A bit melodramatic, maybe, but I feel like my paragraph clearly makes the point – the ideal of the nuclear family isn't very good.

I don't know if this is any consolation, but if it is, it's worth mentioning the “slippery slope” argument that various conservatives make when trying to explain why equal marriage rights is a bad idea. At least, to a certain extent. The extent that goes, “but if you think all adults should be able to enter into any marital arrangement they like, you might as well legalise polygamy!!!!”

And: yes. You might as well. I mean, polygamy is shit when it's on a sexist basis, but it doesn't have to be. Just think: why shouldn't a woman be able to have two husbands? Or if a group of, like, three men and three women all want to have a group marriage together, why not? Why should people be restricted to having only one marriage at a time, even? Maybe our hypothetical dually-married woman's husbands each have other spouses – man or woman or genderqueer, it doesn't matter. And maybe each of those spouses have further spouses. Why not, really? Marriages for everyone, whenever they want! Yay!

Now see, when you start talking like this, it's pretty obvious that you're undermining the institution of the nuclear family. These households are going to get more like mini-communes where free love reigns, and... good. That would be a really good thing.

As well, once you've got to this point, of course, marriage itself seems utterly pointless. You might as well just have relationships without formalising them through marriage. Then again, if you like ceremonies, you might as well have a wedding. Hell, have ten weddings. Does it matter? No, because the nuclear family is dead, anyway. So whatever.

Unfortunately of course, we don't actually live in such a sexually liberated utopia, we live in the world we live in now, where we're expected to get married and live in isolated households, and if you want to get married, you have to identify as either a man or a woman, and you have to marry someone of the opposite gender from you. Such a system delegitimises people who identify as neither men nor women, and it delegitimises all relationships that don't fit this "one man, one woman" ideal. It's a system in which we have this sort of roadmap in mind for our relationships – you meet someone, you date them, you sleep with them, you agree to be monogamous with one another, you move in together, you get married. Roughly, this is it. But it's a system that says that unless you are one man + one woman, you cannot get married. This pinnacle of relationship achievements is cut off from you, because you are not good enough to get that.

In this context, I think it's fucking disgraceful to argue against expanding the institution of marriage just because you want the sexually liberated utopia now. It's cool that you want that now – so do I – but it's not exactly on the horizon, is it. What is on the horizon is that we can change this important institution in our society (which, for better or for worse, is central to most people's lives) to not exclude a huge number of people by definition. It doesn't matter whether you like it or not; it doesn't matter whether you think people should want it or not. People do want it. And it is important for many purposes – immigration, financial concerns, legalities, whatever. No, it shouldn't be. But it is. So there should be equal access to it, rather than making it the sole domain of cisgendered straight people.

So, coming up around Australia on August 11 will be the next round of rallies for equal marriage rights, marking the eighth year that the ban on them has been in place. (Oh yeah, Australian law didn't even mandate the “one man, one woman” thing until 2004. Homophobes sure are genuine and non-hypocritical in their hatred of redefining the word “marriage”, aren't they?) If you're in Melbourne, you can check out this Equal Love Facebook event; otherwise, I'm sure a cursory Google search will give you the deets. It's important that as many people as possible come, and not just LGBTI people but everyone who supports full equality for people, regardless of sexual or gender identity. When we're so close to finally winning is not the time to stay at home. (Not that there ever is a time to stay at home. But if there was, now would not be it.) There's still a battle to be won.

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I’ve noticed that when I write anything from the perspective of a girl it is automatically read as feminist commentary. I don’t really mind but I think it’s interesting. Most of the guys I know relate to my lyrics ‘cause we’re all asking similar questions. They understand what I am striving for, some kind of ‘60’s sexual utopia that doesn’t exist and probably never did. We all have trouble with love because our first love is ourselves. Our generation was taught to be autonomous and it’s driving all of us crazy.


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