If I’m not a feminist what am I?

Until a few years ago I used to refer to myself as a liberal feminist. Most people missed the liberal bit of the phrase, possibly due to lack of understanding that there could be more than one kind of feminist, and focused on the second word. Their reactions tended to fall broadly into two categories: “You can’t be a feminist you’re wearing a skirt.” Or “Oh, you’re a lesbian then.” Clearly neither of these statements is true of all feminists. No, I would respond, I’m a LIBERAL feminist, I believe in equality and anyway feminists come in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations. Eventually I got so bored of explaining to people that feminism didn’t have to mean lesbian, bra-burning, man-hating, the-world-would-be-better-as-a-matriarchy-with-men-as-the-minority, dungaree-wearing (I like dungarees), anything-a-man-can-do-a-woman-can-do-better, men-are-the-root-of-all-evil philosophy that I stopped using the word. It was easier. And that’s the problem; many people believe in equality and feminist principles but don’t know what to call themselves because they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the extremist minority. Broad strokes are easy, you can put someone in a box and say fine I understand that person now (all cyclists jump red lights, all ‘travellers’ are thieves etc. etc.).

I actually have a second issue with the use of the term feminist (even when it’s qualified) to describe someone who believes in equality and it’s a purely linguistic one. Feminism as a term suggests that it focuses on women in the same way that the relatively recently coined term masculinism [1] suggests a focus on men. While the discourses suggest that both women and men should be equal, by using gendered terms we are perpetuating the gender dichotomy. So where does that leave us? Queer theory seems like a good middle ground; its name suggests gender neutrality but not sadly neutrality over sexual orientation. For better or worse queer theory is tied up (at least in the minds of the general public) with the notion of same-sex relationships. All of these discourses contain aspects of how I feel about the world and what I believe about freedom and equality but none of them defines me.

To me, equality means everyone having the freedom to be who and what they are – within reason, if what they are is the kind of person who wants to have sex with pre-pubescent humans then they need to exercise a whole lot of restraint, thank you. Is that prudish of me? No, because with freedom comes responsibilities, and one of those responsibilities is not to force your world view on others, particularly others who cannot make an informed choice about it – that includes children, adults deemed to be without capacity, anyone inebriated and animals. However, within these limitations adults should be free to be who and what they like. If they wish to have group sex, same-sex sex, paid for sex (again with reasonable limitations: no under-age prostitutes, trafficked prostitutes or any prostitute under duress and prostitutes unable to make an informed choice about what they are doing such as those who are addicted to drugs), or even merely masturbate then they should be allowed to.

The same applies to issues of gender: if a man wants to wear a skirt or a dress, why not? After all, women wear trousers. If a woman wishes to live as a man, or vice versa, why not? Come to that if some people want to walk around naked (even in the middle of winter) then why shouldn’t they? [2] Let’s face it anyone coming across a nudist in the middle of winter is more likely to shiver than actually be able to see anything to get upset about (especially if the nudist is male). Careers shouldn’t be gendered either. Why shouldn’t a woman be a builder, a mechanic, a plumber, a footballer – those who argue they shouldn’t have been failed by the feminist project. But how about a man being a nursery worker, or a full time parent or a beautician if they so wish? Because we fear: culturally we are convinced that men who want to work with children are paedophiles even though a quick search of the news will tell you that women abuse children too [3]. We fear a man waxing a woman’s pubic area would get an erection at best, or rape their clients at worst. This continued gendering of careers is patently ridiculous: a gay man working as a beautician clearly has no interest in having a sexual relationship of any kind with a female client, and most bisexual/straight men manage to keep themselves under control most of the time. I am by no means belittling the impact of rape here; merely pointing out that not every man is a rapist.

There are some ‘gendered’ activities such as cooking and hairdressing where the boundaries are quite comfortably blurred at the top end of the profession. For example most of the top chefs in the UK are male – only 2 of the 18 ‘celebrity chefs’ listed on caterersearch.com are female and all four of the UK 3 Michelin star rated restaurants are headed by men: Gordon Ramsey, Alain Roux, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Ducasse [4]. Men do not become beauticians at least partially because of the fear of being perceived to be a pervert, yet most gynaecologists are in my experience [5] male, and gynaecology also involves a lot of time spent working with females’ lower abdomens. Sewing is also traditionally a female preserve yet both genders are well represented in the industry (I suspect there are slightly fewer men than women overall), knitting is historically a male activity and I know several men of my parents’ generation who were taught to knit at boys’ schools as part of the curriculum. Which brings us to hairdressing; this is tied up in even further knots than cooking and sewing as it is often perceived as a career only suitable, not just for women, but a certain type of woman. However a quick count of the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame reveals that there are 30 men, 3 couples (one male one female), one team and only 6 women (possibly 7 or maybe 31 men – there is one androgynous name) who have won the same award three times [6]. I have had my hair cut by a variety of professionals over the years, only one of whom fitted the rather silly stereotype. I also incidentally know several extremely successful female boat-builders, systems administrators, accountants, a dry-stone wall builder (one of the few left in the country) etc. These examples are merely illustrative and yes, women are more likely to get pregnant [7] and need time off than men – that’s a biological thing not a cultural one – but that shouldn’t stop them doing whatever they wish with their lives around that time. Why shouldn’t their partner (male or female) be the primary carer?

The gender binary, heteronormativity and monogamy have a good evolutionary basis. It takes a man and a woman to perpetuate the species and monogamy is as good a way as any of keeping the gene pool ‘clean’. When pregnancy is a natural outcome of sex it doesn’t make sense to put women in danger – after all a species can be repopulated with fewer males than females – hence the staying at home. But, and this is a big but, that’s not the world we live in any more. We shouldn’t particularly want the species to continue growing – the world is overpopulated as it is [8]. The contraceptive pill and the condom have freed people to have as much sex as they like with whoever they like without (when used properly) the risk of a) pregnancy or b) STIs (genital crabs are an exception to this rule and I’m sure everyone knows by now that herpes simplex can be passed on when a person has an active sore [9]). So let’s teach everyone to use contraceptives safely and move on, huh?

If you’ve stayed with me this long you’re probably not going to ask this question but it needs answering anyway. Aren’t we freer and more equal than we’ve ever been before? Well yes if equality means that more personal grooming products are being marketed to men than ever before [10]. That currently, according to beat (beating eating disorders) approximately 10% of people with an eating disorder are male and approximately 20% of those identify as gay [11] and the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that this number is increasing [12]. At the same time news reporting, documentaries and a visit to almost any city centre on a Friday or Saturday night would have us believe that ‘binge drinking’ (defined variously as the consumption of 6 or more units on a single day for women and 8 or more on a single day for men, or sometimes subjectively as feeling very drunk) is getting more prevalent, and that more young women than ever before are out on our streets drinking like the boys. Statistically this is quite hard to prove. Most of these drinkers do not require medical treatment and proportionally few of them are arrested, so all the statistics are based on self-reporting which does not allow for lying, lack of awareness of the amount drunk or the intention to get drunk [13]. So in all these things we are more equal than we were before. Naturally capitalism is going to jump on the band wagon of equality if it means more product can be shifted. Whether that’s alcoholic drinks or personal grooming product really doesn’t matter to the principle, and the suggested increase in males with eating disorders is a logical result of increased exposure to images of physically ‘perfect’ Photoshopped (or possibly GIMPed) men that are being presented alongside the impossibly perfect women we’re used to seeing in magazines, newspapers and advertising.

Despite the ‘progress’ we have made in some areas women still earned on average 20.2% per hour less than men [14] in 2009. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘[w]ithin dual parent families, only eight percent of men report that they have the primary responsibility for childcare’ [15] and, while 31% of men state they share responsibility for childcare only 14% of women agree [16]. Only 22% of the members of the House of Commons are female [17] and 21% of the House of Lords [18]. Only 19 MPs [19] are openly lesbian, gay or bi-sexual (LGB) and to the best of my knowledge we have NO transsexual MPs (maybe that’s how it should be – I’m interested but I don’t by any stretch of the imagination NEED to know, after all a person is a person – whether I like that person is a different matter). So clearly we still need a movement for equality, everyone’s equality.

Increasingly I’m seeing and hearing people using the word feminism in a positive sense, both online and offline, so having gone out of fashion it is being reclaimed for the cause of equality. There is a rich history of this being done; some young black men call each other ‘nigger’, though heaven help a person lacking in melatonin if they try it, and for good reason. Meaning is merely an agreement between people, often one propped up by the institution that is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and similar (it is interesting to note that meanings have changed enough to warrant a comprehensive revision of the OED, which has already been supplemented twice [20]). To pick a few re-used words at random: cool, sick and bad are all used to suggest things which are colloquially good but previously meant (if you’ll excuse the use of synonyms) chilly, ill and the opposite of good. Spastic is a medical term [21], which became an insult to be yelled at anyone even vaguely different to the yeller, causing a rebrand of The Spastics Society to Scope in 1994 [22]. Other words have developed an ambiguity of meaning through overuse: manic, starving and depressed for example. They have come to mean busy, hungry and sad respectively but used to, and some would argue more correctly mean [23]: a mental state in which ones thoughts are moving very quickly (usually accompanied by very rapid speech, failing to sleep and a haemorrhaging bank account), a physical state in which one’s body is lacking in nutrition and is transforming muscle into energy, and a mental state lasting for several months in which the sufferer cannot function. As society changes so the way we use language changes and what is ‘acceptable language’ changes.

Despite these laudable attempts to reclaim the word, I think the problem is more complex and that a new word would be helpful. Not only has the word ‘feminism’ become associated in recent years mainly with the radical fringes of the movement (restricting the number of young people who are prepared to describe themselves as feminists – if you dig deeper you’ll find most of them are actually proponents of equality), it is also a word steeped in the very gender binary it was trying to reduce. So what am I? I’m not a feminist after all.

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Incidentally equality means that trans people shouldn’t have to go stealth as well, see Un-average girl for some explanation of the unexpected difficulties trans people come across when stealth – for example not having had a childhood that matches their adult persona. Having gone for example to an all boys/girls school when in their adult life they are female/male – how is this approached? Does being stealth increase stigma or would telling others put trans people in danger? My personal feeling is that like homosexuality it should be nothing to be ashamed of, equally I’ve been forced to put my 5’ 5’’ size 8 frame between prejudiced idiots and trans friends and go “come on then if you think you’re hard enough”. It shouldn’t have to be like that.

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UPDATE (01 November 2012):

I’ve found myself thinking about this blog post quite a lot over the last few weeks. The term “feminism” appears to have been hijacked by those who seek to enforce a cultural double standard which limits, and controls the activities of both men and women.

This is a stance which those of us who believe in equality are increasingly having to position ourselves against. I find myself reading blogs that use terms such as “sex positive” to distinguish themselves from those who claim to be “feminists” but who don’t really believe in equality.

I wrote this post nearly two years ago and was sparked off thinking about it again by @liveotherwise via her post about teaching her son to be a feminist (now with some really interesting discussion at the bottom).

A few days later I came across one of a series of interesting pieces on slutocracy (go on, read the whole site you know you want to). Slutocracy focuses on the social and cultural background to issues of gender and sexual inequality including, but not limited to the sexual double standard and gender repression it was this post that got me thinking about the role of stereotype enforcement in modern society. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these thoughts but there may be another post coming out of it somewhere.

The final blog that’s had me thinking about feminism again recently is the marvellous it’s just a hobby this is the blog which has led me to think about the term “sex positive” and the implications of modifiers for feminist discourse. Jemima caught my attention with a post about Kat Banyard who is supposedly Britain’s leading young feminist. If she is then I weep for feminism. The lies this young woman appears to have been told highlight the level of privilege in her life, she truly represents the nasty face of feminism no one wants you to see. Then today, I found myself reading another post on the same blog, this time by notalifestyle (an interesting critical thinker also responsible for this post about false consciousness and modern feminism) about the use of the term sex positive and it’s relation to Christianity/biblical teaching. One of the reasons I read it’s just a hobby is for the odd insight it gives me into the lives of sex positive, equalitarian (forgive me) Christians (these are not questions I feel comfortable asking my friends) so I found this a particularly interesting read.

Anyway there you have it posts from various corners of the internet tackling some of the concerns I have about the modern notion of feminism and the right to do what we like with our bodies. Sometimes I’m glad to know I’m not alone…

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[1] There are, somewhat confusingly, two groups of masculinists. One group believe men are equally constrained by societal norms relating to gender politics and wish to free them so we can move to a more equal society, the other are using the term in an attempt to re-establish outdated gender norms. In this instance I am referring to the former.

[2] Actually I can think of several very good reasons why not to walk around naked in the middle of winter not least the risk of hypothermia and severe frostbite, but these are based on biology not an inherent fear of nudity.

[3] Most recently Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Tracy Lyons have admitted sexual abuse of children see BBC News’ Timeline: Vanessa George Abuse

[4] See Michelin stars released by the new Michelin Guide and explore by topic under ‘People’.

[5] Of the roughly 20 gynaecologists my friends and I have met only three were female (this is NOT scientific). If anyone knows what the statistics actually are I’d be very interested.

[6] British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame

[7] This sentence left intentionally incorrect for comedy purposes.

[8] According to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2008, there will be 9 Billion human beings on the planet by August 2045.

[9] Information about sexual activities and risk is available from this NHS Choices page. The FPA tend to focus on heterosexual congress however they do have information about how to use a condom correctly: Condoms (male and female): your guide

[10] Even with the assistance of a chartered accountant I can find no evidence to back up claims that women’s and men’s razors have VAT applied differently. I am told that the assumption when reading VAT notices is that if it’s not specifically mentioned as being: a) outside the scope, b) zero rated, c) exempt or d) subject to reduced rate VAT (INPO) then VAT is applicable at the standard rate (currently 17.5% to be raised to 20% on 4th January 2011). VAT can be thoroughly investigated via HM Revenue and Customs: VAT. If you have evidence to the contrary please let me know. I did discover that VAT is payable on contraceptives (with the exception of those prescribed by a medical practitioner which are zero rated and those fitted, injected or implanted by a health professional which are exempt) details can be found here) and sanitary protection. Both have VAT applied at the reduced rate, however the latter did have VAT applied at the standard rate until 1st January 2001 (details can be found here).

[11] beat: Men get eating disorders too

[12] RCPsych: Eating Disorders

[13] A selection of statistics on Binge Drinking are presented by the Institute for Alcohol Studies in its factsheet Binge Drinking – Nature, prevalence and causes, they also produce an interesting factsheet specifically on Women and Alcohol. The Institute for Alcohol Studies produce a wide range of factsheets available here

[14] Details of the gender pay gap are available from: Office for National Statistics: Labour Market: Gender Pay Gap. If you’d like less dry analysis, more detail and more discussion of the implications try: Fawcett Society: Campaigns: Equal Pay – The Facts. (I happen to find the ONS fascinating, however I am aware that I have geeky tendencies.)

[15] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35 (available online here).

[16] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35.

[17] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of MPs and searching by gender.

[18] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of Members of the House of Lords and searching by gender.

[19] Both the Conservative Party and Labour have 8 openly LGB mps each, the Liberal Democrats have 3. Further information can be obtained from the Lesbian and Gay Foundation: 2010 Election sees rise in lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs.

[20] Information about the history of the OED and the updating process can be found on the Oxford English Dictionary Website: History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

[21] Spastic hemiplegia and spastic diplegia are symptoms of cerebral palsy listed on the NHS Choices Website: Cerebral palsy – Symptoms page

[22] Information about the re-launch of The Spastics Society as Scope can be found in this pdf. This paragraph on p18 under the heading ‘Corporate Identity Outcomes’ focuses on the potential for legitimising a term in a negative way even when the intention is positive:

One other outcome is apparent (although has yet to be tested objectively through research) and that is the use of the word ‘spastic’ as a term of abuse has noticeably declined. The removal of the legitimising effect and prominence of the word in our former name must surely have contributed to this shift.

[23] These are neither dictionary, nor medical definitions. They merely express a feeling for the words meanings.