Saturday, 10 January 2009

Gender anti-fascism and the fourth wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Ms Penny, as usual, all I can really say is YES, and thank you for saying it so well. Queer is the term I have used to describe myself in place of fourth wave, I guess. The importance of queer to me is about recognising that if the gender/sex/sexuality binaries can be revealed to be impositions at best and life-threateningly oppressive at worst, anyone can choose to be queer, no matter what the tags the social world would like to place one them. That's why I'm proud to call myself a queer feminist, & a bullying survivor.

  2. Perhaps the best way to deal with the young man in a violent gang is to direct his natural violent energy into something sociable (and of course put him in prison when he attacks someone). The fact is that an increasingly gender neutral environment has done nothing to reduce violence - the murder rate has actually doubled since the 1960s. To some degree existing ideas of gender and society are based upon biological realities rather than arbitrary preferences.
    People possess a capacity for violence which doesn't have to be taught and can't easily be irradicated. Unfortunately, even in idealistic societies it is neccesary to teach violence to those who are to be co-opted into the state and since we can't trust the state, neccesary for the rest of us, too.

    Now for the good news -
    levels of violence have been, for reasons entirely unrelated to femminism, falling for the last several thousand years.

    (Steven Pinker speaks)

  3. Where do I sign?!

    A few observations...

    The strength of the fear of sexual difference, from puberty onwards, which forms the basis of so much violence and pain at school. The years when sexual identity are starting to become fully clear in early puberty...when this process combines with the intense instinct to belong. The fear of difference in the early teens which fuels the punches and the insults.

    I saw others getting this treatment...I was cunning...NO-ONE knew, and no-one was going to know about what years later I discovered was called my 'gender confusion' (as much as I knew myself). And that (amongst many other things, it has to be said) taught me to start building the dam to hold back knowledge of the real me - a dam which lasted 30 years.

    As a transwoman, the most powerful reactions I always receive are from men. I have rejected the slavemaster role, and gone out on to the plantation, as it were. WHY would I do that? What does it say about maleness that I can REJECT it? (As if somehow I actually had a choice...but that's another issue). This manifests in smirking and laughter (which is hiding something inside them of which they aren't even aware), the blank confusion of not being able to even understand the concept of what I am doing. And then of course the insults, or - luckily for me not so far - the violence, always from men.

    Women are, for the greater part, my allies and friends...there's an agendalessness about their response which chimes with what you are saying here? Call it Fourth Wave...

    Sometimes there's a sisterly solidarity, sometimes I sense a feeling that I am complimenting femaleness by abandoning the ruling caste. Which is both nice, but I always feel slightly misguided...I never saw a ascendancy either way. I just am.

    Except of course the Bindels and Greers disagree profoundly with me and still regard my action as a 'male' act, and an unchangeably male act, whoever I 'think' I am...

  4. Me. I'm with you. This post is awesome.

  5. I will reply to these at a time when I am not frantically dressing to leave the house, but I just wanted to say - Josephine, I haven't said how much I value your comments to this blog, and how glad I am that you read it. I do, and I am. So there.

    Solidarity and semi-nudity. xx

  6. Mark - "natural violent urges". Have you not been listening, or something?

  7. if violence is a symptom of modern society, my opinion is that it stems from the dispossessed of mdoern society. The dichotomy of the message is that everyone will be told that they can be anything they want to be if they work hard enough, and that the pursuit of money is all, and yet at the same time, noboidy is rich but everyone is working. Naturally, this gulf between desire and reality expresses itself in violent frustration : instead of storming gated mansions and banking institutions, society turns on itself.


    Well, I might be projecting here, but I think it has a lot to do with it. The weak pick on those they percieve as weaker, so they can feel strong. and thus, the 'weaker' are stronger, because they ahve to carry the consequences of the weakness of others.

  8. not been listening to what?

    Violence is not a symptom of modern society.
    We're living in the least violent society ever (except for the one we had in the 1950's)

  9. "If we are to be liberated, then we must all be liberated, together: there can be noone left behind"

    Penny you do understand that this is a distinctly fascist statement?

    What if some people are happy the way things are? Will you force them to accept their liberty? How will you get everyone to accept they are a slave? With violence?

  10. Yes, Mark, but assuming "natural" rather than latent (and there are other latent causes other than the purely societal) propensity for violence in young males does rather get in the way of actually solving any problems here, doesn't it? Part of the major problem with male socialisation is the assumption that young boys are intrinsically fighty, and the associated use of violent and repressive controls, often by older males, which leads to, unsurprisingly, a greater latent tendency for violence in many cases.
    Also, the 1950s? Consider the rates of corporal punishment of children and domestic abuse. Violence is not the same as violent crime, and isn't always reported. Not anytime to take an example from, nor a point with a lower rate of violence, just different sources and fewer reports.

    ROBHU: Your assumption of coercive intent in Penny's statement says more about you than it does about the proposals she's made. You might want to look up the component qualities of fascism while you're at it, to save embarrassment in future. What failings do you anticipate in a society that has dispensed with the promulgation or enforcement of binaristic and restrictive gender identity.

  11. You're treading on dangerous ground Withiel. What's to stop Mark writing an equally eloquently superior post saying that boys are naturally more fighty, which is the only reason why older males have to resort to violent & repressive punishments? He could go even further, indeed, and point out that if corporal punishment was rampant in the 1950s while violent crime was low, as you say, this suggests that violent & repressive punishments do in fact work.

    Now I'm not saying he should do that. But he's got a perfect right to. Until one of you brings out some actual evidence you're both just slapping each other up ineffectually with words.

  12. "What failings do you anticipate in a society that has dispensed with the promulgation or enforcement of binaristic and restrictive gender identity."

    Withiel -- those are some very nice words you have there. I'm not quite sure how well they'll go down among the proletariat though.

    My point was not that Penny has any malicious intent. I would never suggest that. She strikes me as a very genuine person.

    The simple fact of the matter -- as Hayek, Gray, Orwell and many others have pointed out -- is that if you wish to get everyone to behave in the same way you will have to force some of them.

    To think that everyone is suddenly going to see the same light and proclaim, 'My word, I'm a slave -- break off these shackles...' Is simply laughable -- it will never happen.

  13. So what I hope for is a new kind of feminism

    Once you've found a band as good as Bikini Kill for me you can have your fourth wave. Until then I'll stick with post-feminism, la.

    All else is reformism. End the binary, halt the woe.

  14. Yes - thats right. I think i'd rather a child was spanked by their parents, than be stabbed to death.
    (If thats the trade-off we're dealing with here)

    If we replace gender divisions, don't you think it likely that people will decide to define themselves and others in different, but equally oppressive and offensive manners?

  15. "If we replace gender divisions, don't you think it likely that people will decide to define themselves and others in different, but equally oppressive and offensive manners?"

    while some people will still develop to have a combo of terrible interpersonal skills plus overbloated ego, removing the current unconscious socialised feedback loop of 'angst-between-the-'sexes'' would remove a hell of a load of misunderstanding and hate in this world.

    @ mx penny, what are your thoughts on the radical feminism label, i.e., in that it views gender roles as being the issue (i'm not thinking of threads of thought such as cultural feminism, more existentialist feminism)?

  16. Donatien Alphonse Fran├žois de Sade15 January 2009 at 12:40

    I like a little violence. Violence is a condiment for every sexual banquet. I also like queers... preferably flayed and fried in extra virgin olive oil.

  17. "To think that everyone is suddenly going to see the same light and proclaim, 'My word, I'm a slave -- break off these shackles...' Is simply laughable -- it will never happen."

    It's not about suggesting people break off their shackles, it's about getting them to break off shackles they are trying to impose on reluctant other people.


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