End of Equality

Why did the feminist revolution stall, and how do we get it back on track? Those questions are at the heart of Beatrix Campbell’s new book End of Equality. Marina S thinks it’s a timely intervention which should enrage and inspire us all.

Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull Books, 2014)

We live in a liberal age. I mean the term in its technical sense: rule of law, individual rights, social contract, John Stuart Mill, the lot. And one of the founding beliefs of liberalism is the progressive paradigm: that the world naturally tends towards more equal and just conditions on a liberal progression towards ultimate equality.

The danger of such a belief is that it could lead to quietism—a passive expectation that the liberal hereafter will arrive on its own and with no need for active political striving on our part. Arguably, this liberal quietism is where feminism was for the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, and is the key characteristic of the so-called third wave. Against the background of an inexorable march towards liberation, political engagement was unnecessary; a retreat to the individual and a critical gaze turned inwards were the logical next steps. Liberation became personal: a state of mind, a stance of being a liberated or empowered women. The material reality will take care of itself; the wage gap will gradually narrow, political representation will gradually increase, the glass ceiling will gradually dissolve, male violence will gradually decrease.

Well, none of these things has happened. Progress on all equality measures – and many others such as division of labour in the home, civil liberties for women across the Global South and so on – has either stalled or gone into reverse. The first half of Bea Campbell’s new book End of Equality sketches in devastating detail just how stuck the progressive agenda is: the wage gap has been the same for years; men have added just one minute a year to their share of housework; male violence against women is static and unchanging on any measure – against a backdrop of dramatic and prolonged drops in other forms of violent crime – except in Asia where it is devastatingly on the increase in the form of female feticide and dowry murders.

Unfinished revolution

As is often the case with the best of feminist writing, this slim volume makes clear something which has been stubbornly inexplicable: what went wrong for the feminist movement? Why was our revolution unfinished? How could we have failed so badly (we think) when seemingly so close to achieving our goals? Two generations of feminists have wrestled with these questions, quite often wrestling with each other in the process. Recrimination and antagonism was bred from a frustrating failure of the liberal paradigm to explain the backlash of the 80s and beyond. If history always marches towards greater equality, and we are not seeing that equality manifest for women, then the fault, the thinking goes, must be in us: we have failed to be inclusive; we have failed to understand race; we have failed to take the correct attitudes to sexuality, marriage, domestic labour, sex work.

In contrast to this soul-searching, Campbell locates the seeming retreat of feminism in a squarely material framework. The reassertion of capital’s power after its brief post-World War II retreat rolled back or arrested not only feminist politics, but the civil rights movement, the student rebellions and other political liberation movements that were active in the 60s and early 70s. What she terms the ‘neo-patriarchal’ paradigm congealed around and in support of the neoliberal economic and political turn in global affairs in the last third of the 20th century. Not just Britain and the US, but countries as politically diverse as China and India went through processes of ‘liberalisation’ beginning in the 70s, and the impact of these changes on women has often been profoundly regressive.

In China in particular, the retrenchment of government support for childcare, healthcare and retirement has resulted in what Campbell calls the greatest redistribution in history – from women to men. But that redistribution is present elsewhere: here in the UK, Parliament’s own research has shown that 72% of the current government’s budget cuts were taken from women’s pockets. Women financed the bank bailout; women carry the cost – in money and labour – of the retrenching welfare state. And the load is getting greater: research shows that, contrary to expectations, women do much more hours of childcare now than they did in the halcyon days of the patriarchal fifties.

We are being deliberately squeezed at home and abroad, and in many countries (Campbell concentrates on Japan and Korea, but this is the case in Italy and other European countries as well) women are responding by withdrawing their labour. Literally. Birth rates in many advanced economies are significantly below replacement rates and the looming crisis of elderly care is enormous – and likely to play out almost entirely at the expense of women. Paid less for doing the same jobs and, crucially, taking on the majority of severely underpaid part time work, women’s pensions are on average half those of men upon retirement.

It is refreshing to read a book that places the blame for the ‘unfinished revolution’ somewhere other than the revolutionaries. Apart from anything else, there is something deeply intellectually unsatisfying about the notion that with the election of Margaret Thatcher, feminists just kind of stopped; that the second wavers became gullible and immediately bought into the radical individualism of the Me Decade (they didn’t – their daughters and granddaughters did), or that they suddenly lost a weight of power and influence they had previously possessed. The latter in particular is nonsense. Feminists have never run a single government, dominated a single board, been the majority of any judiciary. To conceive of backlash politics as a retreat of feminist influence – or even as a kind of counter revolutionary reaction from a conservative groundswell – is to ignore the wider political context and to pretend that, in the favourite atomistic idiom of neoliberalism, social movements and liberation politics happen as discrete events with no contextual relationship to the wider socio-political environment. In the final analysis, this breathtakingly infuriating book simply makes sense – and helps us make sense of what the next move of feminist politics can and should be.

A call to arms

Bea Campbell may not thank me for saying this, but this is a book for the Twitter age: terse but perfectly formed sentences tumble over each other in breathless rapidity, making one want to reach for one’s phone at a rate of three times per page. It’s also a book crammed full of facts – enraging facts, sad facts, alarming facts, frustrating facts. But the bleak blandness of exhaustively referenced numbers is borne along on a stream of beautiful, heart-swelling prose.

The biggest philosophical difference between neoliberal, patriarchal politics and feminism is that the former is profoundly pessimistic. Human nature in the neoliberal reading is base, selfish, violent and grasping – and incapable of reform. All radical politics is embedded in a confidence that people will strive to cooperate, coexist and care for each other if the material conditions they find themselves in don’t militate against it.

It is no coincidence, in this view, that we live in an age of war without end; an unintelligible series of local skirmishes and conflicts in which women, and the cooperative, relational social capital they nurture, are often the hardest hit, not as accidental ‘collateral damage’ but through deliberate acts of mass rape and disenfranchisement that hit purposefully at the heart of social existence. Violations of human rights, in Campbell’s phrase, ‘are not side effects, but a decisive methodology’. Feminism’s project, in her view, is to bear witness to the ‘wit and heroism that makes up everyday life amid chronic violence’.

This is a hard picture of the world to face up to, to take responsibility for; but it is also a call to arms. In calling for a new revolution, Bea Campbell arms us would-be revolutionaries with an explanatory framework and a set of milestones to strive towards in order to achieve the fundamentally optimistic, life-loving aims of a world free of degradation and destruction. So by all means, let’s live-tweet this book. Let’s send all of it out there into the world to enrage and inspire us all. Now is the right time, and we are the right people. I’ll end with a quote from Campbell herself:

Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff – our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather that wreck and waste. This is women’s liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.

 

Marina S blogs at It’s Not a Zero Sum Game. Find her on Twitter at @marstrina

See Beatrix Campbell talking about End of Equality here

Time for a rethink – why the current government definition of domestic violence is a problem.

Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland consider the consequences of changing definitions of domestic violence which have progressively disguised, diluted and distorted the reality of gender based violence.

Background

On March 8th the government announced the national roll out of ‘Clare’s law’ – the right to ask (and for agencies to tell) if a partner has a history of being abusive – and with much less publicity but more potential of Domestic Violence Protection Orders which give police the power to remove an abuser from the home, which if confirmed by a magistrate can last for 14-28 days.  This government, like the previous one, has made domestic violence a legislative priority, whilst at the same time failing to secure specialist support services, but there is a critical problem with how domestic violence is defined.

The term ‘domestic violence’ emerged in the mid 1970s in the UK to describe violence and abuse within intimate relationships (‘battering’ in the US).   It was not always defined in a specific way, but most women’s groups providing support would note that it was a variable combination of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and it was widely understood to be ongoing: what in law is termed a ‘course of conduct’.

When domestic violence forums and specialist police units began to proliferate in the 1990s, a variety of definitions emerged.  In the early 2000s, central government began to develop policy but there was no cross government definition. This coincided with demand from women’s groups for an integrated strategy to deal with violence against women. An existing definition of domestic violence was expanded in 2005 to include FGM, honour based violence and forced marriage.  For some BME women’s organisations this was progress as it brought these forms of violence into the mainstream, others saw it as a sleight of hand: a way of avoiding developing an integrated approach to violence against women.   This cross-government definition, in Box 1 below, was also studiedly gender neutral.

Box 1: 2005 Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence

 Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This includes issues of concern to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities such as so called ‘honour based violence’, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage.

(HM Government, 2005)

In March 2013, the government expanded this definition even further, including more information about the tactics that underpin partner violence, but not limiting the definition to this (see Box 2).

Box 2: Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence 2013

 Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional
  • Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
  • Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
    * This definition, which is not a legal definition, includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

(HM Government, 2013)

 

The three key changes introduced here are a) reducing the age from 18 to 16; b) including coercive and controlling behaviour within the definition; and c) adding the ‘pattern’ to the existing ‘any incident’ approach. It is not these specific changes that we have a problem with, more that a set of problems that were evident in 2005 have been made worse, because the changes have brought confusion and conflation rather than clarity.

 It obscures at best, and denies at worst, a gendered analysis of male violence against women. While we do not deny that violence also occurs against men (by women or by other men in same sex relationships), it is now well established that gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality (United Nations, 1993). To pretend this is not the case to avoid a more complex analysis is a backwards step. This definition is entirely disconnected from that in the government violence against women and girls strategy, which uses the UN definition of violence: violence that takes place ‘because she is a woman or happens disproportionately to women’.

In addition there is a conflation between family violence and intimate partner violence. Since all agencies and local coordination forums (many of which now take a violence against women approach) are encouraged to adopt this definition, this conflation means that data they use, including that from the police, will not allow us to identify the most basic component of a gender analysis: who is doing what to whom.

The new definition downgrades forms of violence disproportionately experienced by minority women.   The 2005 definition included FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence in the main text, but the new definition makes it a footnote.  The gender neutrality of the definition is especially bizarre with respect to FGM.  Everything else in the new definition about tactics of coercion and control is drawn from work on partner violence.  This plays into the ‘othering’ of forms of violence that mainly affect minority women, which many women’s organisations have struggled to challenge and overcome. It may also play a part in a development that some black women have noticed, that many cases of partner violence are now being recorded as honour crimes.

It assumes that the dynamics in intimate partner violence (IPV) are the same as those of violence by family members (e.g. between siblings, between parents and children).  We were amongst those who argued for the inclusion of coercive control, but in relation to violence by intimate partners, where this has been researched and documented.  This definition suggests that these tactics are equally relevant to violence between family members (which we doubt), FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence (which may or may not be the case, but we have not analysed or researched these forms of abuse in this way).    Coercive control is a concept developed to make sense of the many subtle and not so subtle ways in which men impose their will in heterosexual relationships, and it draws on cultural norms about both masculinity and femininity.  This cannot be simply read across into other relationships which are often generational, in which the issues of gender and sexuality play out differently.

The inclusion of ‘incident’ or ‘pattern’ continues to obscure the reality of intimate partner violence. We now have the option of  ‘any incident’ or ‘a pattern’ – made necessary by the inclusion of forms of violence which are usually single incidents (FGM and forced marriage), but which fails to address the critique that IPV is a pattern of coercive control.  It is precisely the repetition and the web of forms of power and control which make it so harmful – the whole is so much more than the sum of its individual parts.  This fudge means that prevalence data from the Crime Survey England and Wales – our only national level domestic violence self-report victimisation study – will remain confusing and misleading.  The ‘any incident’ definition  means that a single push, slap, or incident  of emotional or psychological abuse such as name calling will be given the same weight in the survey as  repeated, and arguably more dangerous acts, such as strangulation and threats to kill.  It is this ‘any incident’ definition, and the analysis that follows from it, which produces the finding that women are almost as violent in interpersonal relationships as men.  Jeff Hearn has argued persuasively that what he calls ‘incidentalism’ reproduces how men talk about their violence: it was a ‘one off’; not that ‘serious’; not ‘really violence’.  Defining and analysing IPV as a pattern would mean that the gendered distribution of victimisation and perpetration, which all services including the police see in their data, would reappear.

The definition continues to marginalise rape and sexual violence. Here it is limited to violence experienced by people over the age of 16, committed by a current/ex partner, or potentially a family member.  But the majority of sexual violence against girls in the family occurs before they are 16.   This is yet another example of how government definitions continue to fail to get to grips with the sexual violence and the many contexts in which it occurs.

The list of forms of violence and abuse is vague and arguably out-dated. It is not clear how emotional and psychological abuse differ or overlap, nor how these differ from the acts constituting coercion and control. It may have been worth making more visible the frequent use by abusive men of online and mobile technology for surveillance and threats.

The conflations and confusions in the current government definition of domestic violence mean it has become a hindrance rather than a help. It is a lazy effort at inclusion of a range of forms of VAW in response to prior criticisms – symbolic recognition of an ‘integrated approach’ at the cost of accuracy. We suggest a new discussion is needed.  Whilst we both support the integrated approach to violence against women as an equalities and human rights issue, within this we also need recognition and definition of each specific form of violence and the contexts in which they occur.

New article: the return of the female serial killer

In February 2014, a judge at the Old Bailey sentenced Joanna Dennehy to a whole-life prison term after she pleaded guilty to three murders and two attempted murders. Dennehy has now joined the select canon of ‘female serial killers’–in Britain its only other members are Myra Hindley and Rose West. But Joanna Dennehy’s story is different, not least because all her victims were men. The media reporting was confused and contradictory; here Debbie Cameron offers an alternative feminist analysis.

Whose human rights?

The issue of prostitution is under close scrutiny at the moment, so here’s a quick review (with many links!) of some recent events. If you know of other developments, especially in countries other than the UK, we would welcome your comment.

For radical feminists, the institution of prostitution is both cause and effect of women’s oppression and we have always found it problematic to frame prostitution as work like any other (see All in a day’s work? by Celia Jenkins and Ruth Swirsky in T&S Issue 36). The fact that poor women, victims of child sexual abuse and incest, women with drug addictions, and women from ethnic and racial minorities are over-represented in prostitution is a clear indication to us that prostitution exists within a patriarchal context of oppression.

The Swedish model

When Sweden adopted a radical new approach to prostitution in 1999  – decriminalising the people in prostitution and offering them significant help in exiting, and at the same time criminalising the people exploiting them, including the “buyers” (see Not for sale by Angela Beausang and Eva Hassel-Calais in T&S Issue 38) – many feminists adopted this as the best compromise solution within our current systems. The Swedish model was explicitly framed as an issue of gender equality, not an issue of violence against women.

Radical feminists do not want to see women in prostitution criminalised. Criminalisation makes women vulnerable to harassment by police and the public, fines for offenses just increase women’s poverty, and incarceration punishes women (and their children) for crimes committed against them.

Amnesty International and sex as a human ‘need’

On January 24th 2014, Julie Bindel publicised a document circulated to Amnesty International UK members as a discussion document for an upcoming vote on Amnesty’s position on prostitution (An abject inversion of its own principles, Daily Mail, January 24 2014) in which she noted:

Amnesty tries to pretend that women selling their bodies is similar to other forms of labour – with one passage in the document explicitly drawing a parallel between women who ‘choose to become sex workers’ and ‘miners and domestic foreign workers’.

It turns out that Amnesty International is “in the process of considering a global policy on sex work”, and part of the reason is that:

The draft policy proposes the decriminalisation of activities relating to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults, on the basis that this is the best means to protect the rights of sex workers and ensure that these individuals receive adequate medical care, legal assistance and police protection.

Obviously, abolitionists have no problem with decriminalising the “selling of consensual sex between adults” (although that begs the question of what “consensual sex” actually is within the context of prostitution transactions), but we have huge problems with decriminalising the “buying”.

The Amnesty UK discussion document referred to by Julie Bindel goes even further than that, however. A footnote to a paragraph about the Swedish model says:

As noted within Amnesty International’s policy on sex work, the organization is opposed to criminalization of all activities related to the purchase and sale of sex. Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need. To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to  privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.

The Twitter hashtag #QuestionsForAmnesty exploded. The idea that criminalising johns could be construed as a violation of their human rights is antithetical to radical – and other types of – feminism.

amnesty_tweet1

amnesty_tweet2o

amnesty_tweet3o

amnesty_tweet4o

amnesty_tweet6o

amnesty_tweet17o

Many noted that the language in the document sounded like it was written by a pimp. Indeed, Martin Dufresne posted Douglas Fox’s claim that he was responsible for Amnesty UK’s pro-prostitution position, a claim that Amnesty UK rejects completely.

Douglas Fox and the organisation IUSW (International Union of Sex Workers) which he fronts has been the subject of feminist scrutiny before. Julie Bindel’s article, “An Unlikely Union” explores her contention that the IUSW is neither a “union”, nor is it comprised solely of “sex workers”, since it welcomes the membership of anyone, including johns and pimps. Cath Elliott has also covered Douglas Fox  and the IUSW.

The Amnesty consultation document is fundamentally at odds with all human rights conventions where trafficking and ‘the exploitation of prostitution’ is considered. Very few countries decriminalise pimping, procuring and profiting from the prostitution of others. Few, if any, decriminalise all prostitution in all contexts. It seems, however, that Amnesty is seriously considering this position and putting it to a vote.

EU vs Amnesty?

On February 27th, the European Parliament voted on a motion to support the Nordic model when considering legislation around prostitution.

A letter of support of Mary Honeyball’s Report on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality, and objecting to the Amnesty International position, started by London Metropolitan University’s Maddy Coy and University of New South Wales’s Helen Pringle, received 79 signatures.

In complete opposition to Amnesty’s apparent starting position on prostitution, the EU parliament passed the motion, a development which the End Violence Against Women coalition here in the UK welcomed.

In addition, an All-Party Parliamentary Group report recommending the Nordic model was launched in the UK on March 3rd.

What you can do

  • Sign the petition asking Amnesty to reject its support for pimps and johns. This petition was started by Canadian activist Jennifer Kim.
  • If you’re an Amnesty member, get involved! The Amnesty UK AGM is April 12-13. These are the resolutions being voted on – see A2. If you’re not in the UK, find out what is happening in your country and make Amnesty support the human rights of women, not johns and pimps.
  • If you’re not an Amnesty member, keep posting relevant questions to the #QuestionsForAmnesty hashtag.

Other links

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

More information about the Swedish model

Feminist Current:

The Nordic model is the only model that actually works. ‘Duh,’ says Sweden

New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence?

Ten myths about prostitution, trafficking and the Nordic model

Space International (a group of Irish prostitution survivors):

Public statement in support of the Honeyball Report

The Telegraph:

An article published in the Telegraph in 2013 describes the conditions for prostituted women in Germany where prostitution has been legalised. In it, a multi-millionaire brothel owner is asked if he would be happy for either of his two daughters to work at Paradise (the brothel):

Rudloff turns puce. “Unthinkable, unthinkable,” he says. “The question alone is brutal. I don’t mean to offend the prostitutes but I try to raise my children so that they have professional opportunities. Most prostitutes don’t have those options. That’s why they’re doing that job. He pauses and looks away.

“Unimaginable, he repeats. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

 

Setting the terms

Delilah Campbell ponders Facebook’s new approach to gender

Heinz comes in 57 varieties, grey comes in fifty shades, and gender, according to Facebook, now comes in 51 different forms. The social media giant announced this month that in future, account-holders (at least, those whose language is English) will be able to choose from a menu of 51 terms describing gender identification. Subscribers in the US can already access the new options, which include ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘intersex’ as well as the more predictable ‘trans’, ‘trans*’, ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’/‘woman’ prefaced by ‘trans’ or ‘cis’.

Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook genderThis move towards greater diversity and inclusiveness has been hailed as—in the words of one source quoted by the Independent ‘a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves’. This speaker, described as a ‘human rights activist’, went on to express the hope that others would emulate the example set by Facebook in ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’.

I will pass over the question of what ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’ has to do with human rights, and ask instead if Facebook’s policy, overall, would actually qualify as ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’. To describe identity as ‘multifaceted’ is to acknowledge that gender is only one element of it, and that others are in principle no less important. But Facebook profiles are not constructed on that principle. Gender is the only personal characteristic that has to be specified explicitly, and displayed publicly, on a Facebook page. You do have to give your birthdate, but you can choose to keep it hidden. You are not asked to select a category from a menu of ethnic labels, or social class labels, though ethnicity and class are also facets of identity; and displaying your educational or relationship status is optional rather than compulsory. So, it’s hard to see the new policy as a sign of Facebook’s commitment to making users’ profiles more fully reflective of their multifaceted identities. It’s more a manifestation of the contemporary obsession with gender identity, gender categories and gender distinctions.

It’s also an illustration of another contemporary phenomenon, the power of the drop-down menu. In a world where we are constantly required to fill in online forms, where you can only proceed to the next screen if you click on one of the options provided (not several, not none, not an alternative of your own devising), there is a tendency to take those options as a map of reality. Like the boundaries marked on an actual map, the lines they draw between this category and that become reified, treated as objective facts to which we must try to fit our own subjective experience.

Facebook’s 51 gender labels are a case in point. There is nothing objective about them: they don’t represent a single conceptual scheme or comprise a scientific taxonomy, they just reproduce as many terms as the designers could think of which are currently used by some subset of English-speakers to describe some kind of non-traditional orientation to the traditional male/female binary. The glossaries which various ‘experts’ have hastily produced to explain them suggest that many of the new categories overlap or duplicate one another: ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’, for instance, all denote an identification with both masculinity and femininity. But once they appear as discrete options in a drop-down menu, there’s a good chance people will treat them as definitive, and if necessary create the semantic distinctions that are needed to make them coherent. Just as having the choice of ‘Miss’ ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ has persuaded many English-speakers that ‘Ms’ must denote a distinct category of ‘others’ (older unmarried women, divorced women and lesbians) rather than subsuming (as it was meant to) the previous, marital status-based categories, so asking people to choose between ‘genderfluid’ and ‘bigender’ will prompt them to invent criteria for distinguishing the two. Meanwhile, some people will inevitably feel that the available options exclude them, or fail to represent them fully, and will lobby for new ones to be added. As if any nomenclature, however many terms it included, could possibly capture all the nuances of our lived and felt experience.

Facebook’s new nomenclature certainly doesn’t work for me, because it presupposes that there must be some form of gender that I feel a positive identification with. In fact, as a radical materialist feminist my position is that gender, like ‘race’ and class, is essentially a system of domination and subordination, and as such I am politically opposed to it. While I acknowledge its existence as a material social fact, and accept that it has shaped my own experience and sense of self, I do not identify positively with any form of gender, either actual or imaginable. Being willing to call myself a woman (again, in recognition of a material social fact) does not mean I have a positive identification with femininity. My relationship to both femininity and masculinity is entirely negative. Facebook doesn’t provide any terminology with which I could ‘honestly and accurately represent’ that position. It allows me to list my gender as ‘neither’, or the more arcane ‘neutrois’ (glossed as ‘people who do not identify within the binary gender system’), but the problem with those terms (also ‘gender non-conforming’ and ‘gender variant’) is that in this scheme they all denote identities: they define you as a certain kind of person, rather than as a person (of any kind) who takes a certain political stance.

Though from my point of view Facebook’s approach to gender is more or less apolitical, the company evidently wants to be seen as a champion of progressive attitudes. The spokesperson quoted in the Independent presented the new policy as part of the company’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as a sign of its openness to concerns expressed by users (in this case, LGBT groups who campaigned for new terminology). However, anything Facebook does in the area of user profiling is liable to be interpreted in the light of our knowledge that its money is made by selling data to advertisers. I always assumed that the real reason why your profile had to specify whether you were male or female was the importance accorded to that information by Facebook’s real customers, the marketeers. Some commentators have suggested that the new gender nomenclature will serve their purposes even more effectively: by getting people to define themselves in less blandly generic terms (or as one comment put it, ‘finding 50 more ways to violate my privacy’), Facebook can help businesses to target a more specific market niche.

On that point, I’m slightly sceptical: it’s hard to see how this confusing set of labels could be mapped onto the consumer preferences that are of interest to the niche-marketers. Are there products which appeal more to the ‘gender variant’ than the ‘gender non-conforming’, or services for the ‘androgynous’ as opposed to the ‘bigendered’? If you identify as bigendered, will that just mean you get a double helping of spam?Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook gender

Yet at a deeper level I do think the revamping of Facebook’s gender options shows the influence of consumerism on what is now thought of as ‘political’ action—the idea is that people are empowered by having as much choice as possible, and that minorities in particular are empowered by the public validation of their choices. ‘Put my preferred gender identity label on your drop-down menu so that I can display it in my profile’ is the kind of political language that Facebook understands, but in the real world, arguably, the effect is pretty trivial. (How often does anyone even look at what genders their Facebook friends have specified?) Other political demands, for instance that Facebook should stop hosting pages which promote violence against women, have not been so easily accommodated (though they have sometimes been successful when accompanied by actions that threatened the site’s advertising revenue).

If Facebook had wanted to do something really radical, it could surely have gone for the simpler option of taking gender off the menu altogether. Instead of requiring every user to select a label from a predefined set of options, it could have said it was going to let individuals make their own decisions about how to define and present themselves—permitting them not only to use their own preferred terms, but also to decide how far to foreground their gender in their profiles.

I’d just as soon leave it in the background myself; but since that is apparently unthinkable, I’m considering setting up a Facebook group to lobby for some additional menu options—some boxes a radical feminist could tick, like ‘gender indifferent’, ‘gender resistant’, ‘gender hostile’ and ‘nowadays when I hear the word “gender” I reach for my medication’. Anyone want to join?

Cartoons by Cath Jackson

Cath Jackson closes the Sochi Winter Olympics

Cath Jackson cartoon - Sochi

 

© Cath Jackson

Commodifying women’s safety

Can mobile phone apps help to protect women from domestic and sexual violence? A recent study suggests that they might do more harm than good, as Nicole Westmarland explains.

At Durham University’s Centre for research into violence and abuse, one of our recent research projects  looked at the use of ‘apps’ in relation to domestic and sexual violence (a link to the full report is at the end of this post). When we present this research or talk about it with students, it’s often the more ‘extreme’ rather than the more mundane, everyday examples that get the audience’s attention and the gasps of disbelief. The biggest gasps come when we talk about apps that have been developed specifically to track and harass women, most notably the ‘Track Your Wife’ app which has over 10,000 downloads and enables men to add a tracking device to their partner’s phone and track them in real time anywhere in the world. But, horrible as the existence of this app is,  it is not the focus of my blog post or even the focus of our research.  We were more concerned about apps that claimed to be helping to keep women safe.

An ‘app’ is a small, specialised software program, downloadable and installable onto mobile devices such as smartphones or tablet computers. This research consisted of a systematic app search plus 10 interviews with app developers and 17 with domestic and/or sexual violence practitioners.

We found that the most common app function was a panic alarm/danger alert – when coded by main function this accounted for nearly half the apps (49%). Some of these apps were basic ‘panic buttons’ which — similar to non electronic panic or rape alarms —emitted a very loud noise designed to attract attention and thereby scaring the potential offender away through fear of being caught (e.g. Attack Alarm, Scream Alarm, iPhone Panic Alarm). Most, however, offered additional functions. ‘Red Panic Button’ costs $2.99 (with the option to buy extras within the app), was developed by a UK based company, and has won an ‘app of the day’ award. It offers an SMS, email, Twitter, and/or Facebook panic message to be sent at the press of the Red Panic Button, which sends the user’s current location coordinates. It also offers an emergency dial function that can be customised. In its description it describes itself as an ‘Early Warning and Vulnerability Alert System’ and makes grand claims such as ‘The one call that can make a difference!’, ‘Get out of harm’s way with just one touch!’, ‘In an emergency, information means survival’, and even ‘Red Panic Button is your lifeline!’.

Practitioners from violence support services were largely critical of panic alarm/danger alert style apps, thinking that they did not really ‘add’ anything —a quick text to the same effect could easily be sent or information quickly searched for online. They were also concerned that apps may reinforce ‘victim blaming’ attitudes that excuse  perpetrators’ actions.

We agreed with these criticisms. Apps like these require women to do what Liz Kelly calls ‘safety work’, by which she means we are expected to invest time, energy, and (sometimes) money into ‘keeping ourselves safe’. Some may also perpetuate ‘stranger danger’ myths that mask the prevalence of violence within ongoing relationships. Though these new apps are more sophisticated than ‘old style’ panic alarms, we argue that there is  little evidence to support their bold claims. They are part of the commodification of women’s safety.

Follow @nwestmarland

Read the full research findings at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/sass/research/briefings/ResearchBriefing12-ProtectingWomensSafety.pdf

Cath Jackson on the Sochi Olympics

The fabulous Cath Jackson is back – with her iconic illustrations! Here she turns her pen to the subject of the Sochi Olympics.

Cartoon: Russian border guard says: "Welcome to Sochi. Please not to impose non-traditional sexualities during your stay."

Cartoon: "Some of my best friends are athletes"

© Cath Jackson 2014

New article: Debbie Cameron – Slim Pickings

The T&S  archive makes clear that fat was a feminist issue in the 1980s and 1990s, and that issue hasn’t gone away; on the contrary, the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ of the 21st century has prompted a new wave of moral panic and some worrying new forms of fat oppression. In Slim Pickings Debbie Cameron asks how feminists have responded to these developments, and argues that we need to get more radical.

Event celebrating 30 years of Trouble and Strife

Video of the event celebrating the creation of the archive of 30 years of Trouble & Strife.

The event was held at London Metropolitan University on December 2nd, 2013.