Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Women’

How Saint Wilgefortis Came to be: The Saint of Bearded Ladies

uncumber

If you know of Saint Wilgefortis, you probably have an uncommonly large knowledge of hagiographies – the biographies of saints. This particular saint gives some interesting but amusing insight into how gendered cultural signifiers have… caused confusion.

I should say, Uncumber was her English name, while also being known as Wilgefortis, and various other names such as Ontkommer in Dutch, and Liberata in Italian. One commonality is that her name often translates to mean unencumbered, liberated, or escaped (or similar), as she was venerated by those seeking freedom from hardship. More specifically she has been the patron saint of women wishing to escape from abusive husbands.

The story of Wilgefortis goes that she was the daughter of a pagan king (sometimes in Portugal) who had arranged her marriage to another pagan. Because she’d taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to her (Christian) god to make her ugly and undesirable so the marriage would be called off. When she awoke, she had her bushy beard. Her father duly called off the marriage, but also had her crucified.

st w

So, presuming that you don’t take this history entirely literally, where did this representation come from? Medieval imagery doesn’t have a tremendous reputation for representing gender non-conformity after all, let alone venerating those who express it.

‘Bearded figure on a cross’ usually only brings one name to mind, and this is no coincidence. It is thought that because Eastern representations of Christ were in, by Western standards, feminine robes or even a dress, when miniature copies were brought over by pilgrims and traders, a narrative sprang up in order to let the image make cultural sense. This argument was first made in 1906 by Hippolyte Delehaye, a Jesuit hagiographical scholar. Volto_Santo_de_Lucca.JPG

The Volto Santo di Lucca, or ‘Holy Face of Lucca’, a 13th century copy of the early 11th century original, which contributed to the rise of depicting Christ in long robes. 

The link between the Holy Face of Lucca and Wilgefortis is underscored further by her name being a corruption of ‘Hilge Vartz’ – or holy face. Gender roles were so rigid that god granting an overnight insta-beard was far more reasonable than ‘men wear different things in other lands’.

bearded-lady

This statue is in Westminster Abbey in London, specifically in the Henry VII Lady Chapel (fittingly). 

As one might expect with a process akin to theological Chinese Whispers, the different articulations of a bearded lady’s crucifixion got hashed out in all sorts of different ways. Santa Librada (as represented in the North-Western Spanish town of Bayona) is clean-shaven, and one of nine sisters who were all martyred. Additionally, robes on men somewhere like medieval Italy wouldn’t have inspired the same unfamiliarity as perhaps in more north-westerly contexts. I take some pleasure, however, in imagining a medieval snake-oil salesman having to really think on his feet when put on the spot by a sceptical Bavarian, French, or British peasant over his statuettes.

A fresh look at art – Women and their understated part in history

This post was written for Gender Agenda, the Cambridge University Student’s Union Women’s Campaign termly magazine. Their website (where this and many other great resources and reads for women in particular) can be found here.

 

Whilst over the centuries it’s a horrible, abhorrent fact that women have had to struggle to be seen and heard in virtually all professional arenas, we are very, very lucky that art can endure. We are lucky that many women (though not as many as might have) dared to push against societal pressures by training in and executing their gifts in various times and places – when it undoubtedly may have been easier (albeit unhappier) to quietly run the home and children, and little else. Likewise it seems to me a further product of patriarchal systems that many female-dominated ‘applied arts’ such as weaving, embroidery, etc. are viewed with considerably less social significance compared to the historically male dominated ‘fine arts’. Embarrassingly, many fans of fine art may find themselves unable to name more than a handful of female artists. In contemporary terms Tracy Emin and Yoko Ono spring to mind though are often callously dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘talentless’. To go back further chronologically, could I even confidently declare Frieda Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth as household names with the same confidence as Van Gogh or Michaelangelo? I sadly doubt it. The following list of artists was selected to represent a cross-section across different times, cultures, and styles – I really hope you’ll Google these women, as the effort it will have taken to produce their works only heightens their deservedness of an audience.

1. Claricia (13th Century)

One of the few positions in life which provided the freedom for artistic expression in the middle ages was in monasteries and nunneries. Claricia was thought to be a lay student at an Abbey in Augsberg in Germany where she illustrated herself into a psalter – her body swinging as the tail to an ornate capital Q.

 

2. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656)

The daughter of a professional painter, Artemisia was trained in her father’s workshop. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of the Arts and Drawing, in Florence. The vast majority of her work displays women in positions of power relative to men. Judith from the Bible in particular, who does some pretty knarly beheading of one Holofernes. Caravaggio painted the same scene, though if you compare the two paintings it’s Gentileschi who really captures a sense of brutal determination. Caravaggio’s Judith (here she is!) lacks this to me, perhaps because Gentileschi could better empathise with and capture such a sense in a woman. Caravaggio’s Judith comes across to me as a dainty flower who isn’t quite sure how she ended up with a sword in a chap’s neck.

3. Louise ÉlisabethVigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

Another artist whose access to teaching stemmed from having an artist father, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally by her early teens, progressed to be Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter, and caused a scandal by breaking convention when she painted herself smiling showing her teeth.

4. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879)

Cameron can be regarded as a pioneer in photography, despite taking the art form up at the age of 48, when given a camera by her daughter. Some of her images are unbelievably crisp as a result of her perfectionism, given she was working in the 1860s. Cameron was neighbour and friend to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the great aunt of Virginia Woolf.

5. Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907)

Lewis managed to obtain impressive success in her lifetime as a Neoclassical sculptor despite not only gendered barriers, but the fact that she was mixed race (Haitian, African, and Ojibwe Native American). Orphaned at a young age, Lewis made money with her aunts by selling Ojibwe baskets, and was able to attend college from the financial success of her brother. Through her determination Lewis was able to take herself to study in Rome, and later achieved hugely lucrative commissions and had the President Ulysses S. Grant sit for her. Many of her sculptures contain poignant messages on race.

6. Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)

A friend of Edgar Degas and a fellow Impressionist, Cassatt, whilst attaining tuition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after a privileged education around Europe, felt rightly restricted by the attitudes towards women (for example, being forbidden from studying nudes) so left without graduating and pursued her own study. She moved to Paris and applied to study privately with masters due to women being forbidden from the École des Beaux-Arts. Many of her paintings focus on themes of motherhood, and in later life she was committed to the cause of women’s suffrage.

7. Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962)

Beaten by her father who viewed her sculpture as ‘graven images’ until she sculpted a Virgin Mary which changed his mind, Savage was able to make significant money from her clay sculpture in her early life, but did not experience widespread financial success. Upon rejection in 1923 from a French art program due to being black, her civil rights activism was begun. In 1934 she opened a multiracial studio where she taught anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, draw, or sculpt.

8. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)

If the term had existed, Claude Cahun may well have accepted the label of Genderqueer. Settling with her partner (also her stepsister) in Paris before later moving to Jersey in 1937, both engaged in resistance during Nazi occupation. They would take English-to-German translations of BBC reports of Nazi atrocities, paste them into poetic formats, dress as German military officers so as to infiltrate military events and leave the poems where they would be read. Whilst arrested and sentenced to death in 1944, both survived the war.

9. Ogura Yuki (1895 – 2000)

Ogura specialised in nihonga painting, which is the utilisation of strictly traditional Japanese methods and styles. She painted much nude portraiture of friends and family throughout the 50s and 60s, in natural, familial settings. Only one other female painter (UemuraShoen) has received the Japanese Order of Culture.

10. Kay Sage (1898 – 1963)

Born in New York, Sage floated around Europe with her mother during her early childhood, exposing her to a variety of culture and also giving her an informal fluency in French and Italian. Whilst she spent 10 years married to an Italian nobleman she found this life deeply unsatisfying, and later obtained a divorce. She was exposed to surrealism in the 1930s and impressed André Breton (the founder of the movement), though he did not believe her paintings could’ve been done by a woman.

11. Rachel Whiteread (1963 – )

Gaining some fame as the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993, for a cast taken of an entire Victorian terraced house, Whiteread is also one of the artists to have a piece on the empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square – an upside down resin cast of the plinth itself, potentially the largest ever object to be made of resin. Her work often explores ‘negative space’ – the space inside an object not actually taken up by the object itself.

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – transphobia in feminism

Every August since 1976, a music festival has taken place near Hart, in Michigan. This festival is organised, built, staffed, and attended exclusively by women, and over the years has grown in size. It now receives a turn-out of thousands of women each year.

(Brief aside): The festival uses the word ‘Womyn’ rather than ‘Woman’ in order to reflect the feminist idea of female independence from patriarchal language structures. That ‘man’ is still used as an indefinite pronoun (eg. ‘It’s one small step for man’), alternative spellings such as womyn, wimmin, wom!n, etc., both highlight and resist reference to women from a male baseline or norm.

Sadly, due to the way the festival is run, what could be an empowering event for all women is actively discriminatory. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – excluding women who were DMAB (designated male at birth).

How do the organizers of the festival justify this? Below I tackle some of the most common arguments I found for the trans woman excluding policy.

Photograph by James Cridland

1. ‘Trans women don’t grow up being read by people as girls, and so don’t have an embodied experience of the patriarchy in the same way as womyn-born-womyn.’

One woman’s experience of oppression is never going to be the same as that of another woman, I think we can agree. Everyone’s life experiences are unique, and there is no clear, unifying ‘female experience’. The closest thing one could reasonably claim to be shared by all women is the possession of a female gender identity – which trans women have. Many trans women indeed have declared that they have felt their gender identities in this way for their entire lives, though I think it’s important to note that one’s gender identity isn’t made ‘less legitimate’ through being questioned by oneself at any particular time (would a cis woman be any less of a woman if she has questioned her gender identity at any point in her life?). Women of colour, disabled women, and other groups besides will experience ‘being women’ in different yet entirely valid ways to the white, upper-middle class, cis, educated narratives that dominated much of the discourse of second wave feminism from whence such a philosophy originates.

Also, many trans women do have much direct experience of sexism and patriarchy, through being read as cis women by those around them. Based on the arguments above, this should not be read to imply that a more normative, ‘feminine’ appearance is to be viewed as a more legitimate form of woman. Trans women often face horrendous barriers to being taken seriously as women, which involves interplay between patriarchy and cissexism. This cannot be meaningfully separated out, and thus there is serious room for the argument that all trans women have an acute embodied experience of the patriarchy.

2. ‘Trans women have experience of male privilege.’

So do trans men, and yet they are welcome at the MWMF. Oh yes. These are individuals who identify as men, present as men, are men, and are afforded male privilege, yet still have access to the festival. This not only makes the claim of the festival being for ‘womyn-born womyn’ downright false (at best, it’s for ‘womyn-designated anyone’) but also firmly undermines the arguments put forward in points 4 and 5.

Experience of a particular type of privilege isn’t someone’s fault, it is simply something to be born in mind. A white womyn should bear in mind her race privilege. Able-bodied/minded womyn should be aware of their privilege compared to disabled womyn. If a person was not always (seen as) disabled, does that make them ‘less disabled’? No. This is an imperfect comparison, and is purely illustrative – certainly one cannot simplistically claim that how a person has been viewed by others strips them of the legitimacy of their identity. This is to erase their identity, using one’s own privilege to do so. Does the genital configuration of one womyn give her the right to claim womyn who are different to her are not womyn? No. And indeed, doing so is the very definition of ‘cis privilege’ – where sex designated at birth is presumed more legitimate than that which is identified, and lived.

3. ‘Oppressed people have the right to make their own safe spaces in the way they wish, without explanation.’

Well, that depends on where you are and what you’re doing. For example the extreme-right wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic UK political party the BNP was forced to change its constitution to accept people of colour. This was an obvious example of a group discriminating (illegally) against racial minorities. Whilst MWMF may not have breached Michigan or US law, this is still an example of a privileged majority (cis women) excluding a marginalized minority. The fact that cis women experience marginalization and discrimination doesn’t justify their performance of oppression in the name of safe space creation. The argument rests on viewing trans women as not being ‘real’ women. The very existence of the identity category ‘womyn-born-womyn’ makes the political statement that there are womyn who weren’t ‘born womyn’, and that they are therefore ‘other’. This ‘othering’ sets up a false dichotomy, that there are two distinct categories, those ‘born womyn’ and those not, and that your validity as a womyn is decided based on which category you fall into. I have written about the flaws with attempts to define identity based on biology here.

Lisa Vogel, the founder of MWMF has said this about the festival:

Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist.

Except this draws a false parallel… unless you refuse to accept trans women as being women at all. It’s more like supporting a women of colour space that decides that women of colour with one white parent don’t count, because their appearance and experience may be different. Attempting to say ‘oh you are a woman, but you don’t fulfill this sub-definition we’ve created for inclusion in our space’ fundamentally discriminates against a minority, rather than providing a safe space from a majority, or oppressive influence.

4. ‘Many womyn-born-womyn have been the victims of sexual assault and rape at the hands of men. These women may feel threatened by the presence of trans women.’

This argument could implicitly rest one any of several potential meanings. One interpretation may be ‘these women may feel threatened by trans women who possess penises and are capable of penetrative rape, or cause triggering  simply through the presence of the organ’. At MWMF, phallic sex toys are visibly for sale, and there are workshops pertaining to much sexual activity, ranging from masturbation to fisting. As has already been mentioned, trans men are allow allowed to be present who not only may possess a penis but may also present entirely unambiguously as male. What this therefore says is that trans men are not a sexual threat in terms of their ‘maleness’, but that trans women are. This erases the legitimacy of both group’s gender identities – trans men are ‘other’ from cis men by this understanding.

This claim could imply that a cis woman’s discomfort is more valid than a trans woman’s right to be recognised. This would sound utterly unacceptable if presented in terms of race – ‘a white woman who has received abuse at the hands of a black woman may feel threatened by the presence of black women’ is not a reasonable argument for the exclusion of black women, and that’s without the fact that one is implying that trans woman = man = rape.

Is the implication that one can ‘spot’ a trans woman through their appearance, which could be ‘male and threatening’? I’ll let the images below cover this one.

            

Jenna Talakova, and Buck Angel. Guess which one would be allowed entry to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? Hint: it’s not the woman. How the festival actually establishes the men they allow entrance are trans, I have no idea. Also to my knowledge, neither Jenna nor Buck have ever had any association with MWMF, and this point is purely illustrative.

Note: I’d like to reiterate that appearance is not a good justification for legitimizing or erasing a person’s gender identity. The images of the people above who experience and exhibit being female and being male in visually normative ways simply help to highlight the absurdity of the classification system used by the organizers of the festival.

The account of Alice Kalafarski tells of a trans woman’s experience at MWMF, highlighting how upsetting and offensive WBW arguments really are – and can be read here.

5. ‘Allowing trans women to enter would allow men to put on dresses and claim a female gender identity and enter the space.’

Men already enter the space. This is apparently okay though, simply because they were designated female at birth. Accommodation is also (rightly) made for male children, so long as they’re 10 years old or younger. Crucially though, this argument rests upon a ‘slippery slope’ based logic (or lack thereof). This is the assertion that:

If we allow A to happen, then B will happen too! Therefore, A should not happen.

This does not address the issue at hand, but derails the voice for trans women to be recognized as much as cis women by shifting attention to a hypothetical claim with no basis for concern.

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As Alice Kalafarski’s account details, MWMF does seem to form strong, laudable policies regarding acceptance and awareness of race and ability. That there are apparently plenty of people who attend the festival and make a point of sporting ‘Trans Women Belong Here’ T-shirts and buttons doesn’t seem to have changed the situation, and in my eyes only problematises the sincerity of a trans ally who will declare a disgust with policy and yet still willingly engage with it. I will leave you with a powerful quote from the ever-eloquent Julia Serano:

My female identity is regularly reduced to a “debate” by non-trans queer women who would rather spend a week with their friends in Michigan than examining their own cissexual privilege. What’s even more disappointing to me is that there are a lot of FTM spectrum people out there who do the very same thing. They hypocritically expect their friends, families and co-workers to respect their male- or genderqueer-identities for 51 weeks out of the year, then for that one week at MWMF they take advantage of cissexual privilege (which presumes that one’s “birth sex” is more legitimate than one’s identified and lived sex) in order to enter women-only space. Their insistence on “having it both ways” marginalizes me as a trans woman: it delgitimizes my female identity in both the lesbian and the transgender communities of which I am a part.

Smearing of feminism – a history through illustrations

Cartoons have been sources of entertainment, political point-making, and propaganda for centuries. When I think of the subjugation of women in this medium, it is often through sexualisation. Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, Wonder Woman, the list goes on.

This little comparison has been doing the rounds on the internet lately, and it illustrates the point nicely.

The poster for the film ‘The Avengers’, as is.

Pose styles reversed. Iron Man – buns of steel, anyone?

Feminists however, for longer than the word has been in common parlance, have been the targets of predictable, oppositional lampooning. What is a little more interesting is how the styles and commentary used in the pictures have changed very little. I’ll be organising cartoons chronologically, or making the best guesses I can where I don’t know dates. To my knowledge, all images originate from the UK or the US.

A little background history first, though. Feminism is often said to have its early beginnings in the second half of the 19th century, when a fair amount of social and political reform was going on. Important earlier writers and politicians have been retrospectively labelled the forebears of the feminist movement (though to call feminism a single movement was even then, let alone now, rather inaccurate). Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill are important examples – for their works A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women respectively, written in 1792 and 1869. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded (from the merger of pre-existing groups), and its members termed Suffragists. This group was non-militant and utilised pamphlet distribution, talks, and appeals to MPs, without using violence. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) split off in support of more radical action due to the lack of suffragist success. This group is more famous for its founder Emmeline Pankhurst  (and her daughters), and their groups members’ label by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes.

So, this first picture is from 1906, and was showing ‘women of the past’ contrasted against ‘what women are becoming’. Smoking? Legs apart? Ties? Such an angry, unappealing expression on the face of the woman on the far right of the bottom panel? Obviously a bit tame by standards 106 years later, but the key themes are clearly that traditional women are more attractive, and more productive. All members of the top panel are embroidering or knitting, rather than daydreaming or scowling. The author is hardly ambiguous about what he (it’s got to be a he, really) considers the ‘better type’ of woman.

From 1910. Real anger from the woman in this comic, or at least, misanthropic nagging. The poor man is uncomfortable and forced to do everything by his overbearing, unfair wife. The look on his face harbours resentment. Clearly asking for the right to vote leads to domestic catastrophe, and unhappiness in the home. Whatsmore, this silly woman apparently doesn’t even know what she wants! Oh, when will she learn? Those wacky suffragists.

caption:

Millitant Suffragette – “I have smacked policemen, broken windows, assaulted Ministers, broken up meetings, done ‘time’, shouted myself hoarse – to prove myself a fit mate for you! Will you have me?”

J. B. – “No, thank you!”

1912. J.B. Refers to ‘John Bull’ – a personification of Britain, much the equivalent of Uncle Sam for the US. The violence of the image was reflected in the current climate, with Suffragettes smashing shop windows, burning, and even bombing buildings (though avoiding human targets). The feminist militant effort is lampooned as futile, because who would want to listen to angry, unpleasant women? The laundry list of offences likewise stimulates indignation and anger towards the movement.

caption:

“Mr. Wilson is lucky he is not a candidate twelve or sixteen years from now”

Also 1912, but from the US this time, during the campaign that would lead to Woodrow Wilson’s first term as President. This cartoon is a little unusual in showing hypothetical women with the vote, but – they’re considering whether to vote for Mr. Wilson off the most irrelevant of traits and topics! One can read women inquiring “I wonder if he is brave?”, “Do you help your wife with the dishes?”, “Do you adore Browning?” (EDIT: which most likely refers to the poet Robert Browning or possibly Elizabeth Barrett Browning – rather than the judge or firearms inventor as first sprung to my mind. Thanks  to Amelia in the comments section for this) and the inane comments “he has large feet” and “I never vote for brunettes”. The supposed frivolity and lack of awareness of politics in women is played off, in a similar way to the UK 1910 cartoon above. The supposed ignorance of women makes them unworthy.

 

I put these two together due to being so similar. We’ve seen these themes before. Harangued husbands, demeaned and debased in being made responsible for all domestic chores, causing strife in the home. I also can’t decide whether the wife in the image on the left looks more like an ogress or the terrifying girl from the film The Ring. But it’s comic, you see! Ugly, domineering women demanding they get their way about all things. Not equality, but selfishness. This may sound eerily familiar, if you’ve ever been exposed to contemporary criticisms of feminism, usually by men. See Rush Limbaugh’s comments, for instance. His term ‘Feminazi’ has even inspired right-wing T-shirts. 

This one’s quite famous. Maybe you’ve seen it in a school history lesson? Not much to it. Ugly women don’t get love from men, so they get angry and lash out at society about it. Of course.

It never seems to matter much in these smear campaigns that many of the arguments rest on painting the demonized with directly oppositional stereotypes. Suffragettes are simultaneously unmarried and unloved and angry, as well as bringing disaster to their husbands and children through their selfish refusal to do home chores. I actually have no idea if there was an official suffragette line when it came to household labour, though it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘women who want the vote = women who won’t do anything at home’ idea was entirely fabricated for leverage.

Ah. But now a rapid leap, to 1995. This cartoon was published by the Utah County Journal in response to Voice, the Feminist group of Brigham Young University, staging an event highlighting violence perpetrated against women. The range of labels in the picture (Eng dept activism, R movies, anti-honour code, and Sunstone magazine) represent a range of organisations considered damaging by the conservative journal, and how together they’re causing trouble. Notice the disgusting mockery of violence/rape survival in the form of the armband on the muscular, unattractive Viking representation. In 100 years nothing more sophisticated than ‘women are ugly and don’t make sense’ has really been levied.

2012. You have have seen some of the news earlier this year, where after a young lady named Sandra Fluke gave a speech in support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives (citing a friend with a health condition that would be controlled by the contraceptive pill). Rush Limbaugh (yeah, him again) went on to say:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

So this cartoon makes a (left wing) Feminist unattractive, stupid, angry, irrational, and morally dubious through slut-shaming. The shitty satire of Feminism hasn’t moved on for several reasons. Firstly, sadly, it’s effective. A blend of reductio ad absurdum combined with an audience ignorant of the issue being twisted and/or fabricated, and with some basic aesthetic demonisation is a recipe for most propaganda. Secondly, with a definition as simple as “a belief in equal rights for women”, feminism has become increasingly legitimised amongst anyone with half a brain cell of reason – even if different individuals and schools of feminism would enact this in very different ways. The fact that many more people find the label ‘Feminist’ problematic than actually consider its core principle unreasonable in parts reflects the success and ubiquity of this smearing.

Oh, and some of this stuff isn’t even to try and attack a political movement particularly. Some is a pathetically vomitous attempt at humour, such as the UK magazine ‘Viz’. It was seeing the character ‘Millie Tant‘ on the front cover of this cow pat of a publication whilst doing my shopping that made me think to write about this post. Here’s a picture of Millie.

Need I say more?

Well…actually, yes. When I was searching for an interesting spread of images, I found one that I felt was deserving of being saved until last. Much of Feminism (particularly second-wave Feminism of the ’70s-’90s) has been criticised for exclusively serving the needs of white, upper middle class women, reducing the experience of ‘woman’ down to a narrow narrative not experienced by many individuals, particularly economically disadvantaged women of colour. That said, the criticism of some part of woman’s suffrage in the image below seems quite ahead of its time, in commenting on the hypocrasy seen in white feminists exercising their power over black feminists through racism. Food for thought.

caption:

top: JUST LIKE THE MEN! bottom: Votes for WHITE women.

To porn or not to porn? Feminist views on pornography

So today my fine perusers, we will be discussing a particular issue relevant to Feminism – but first, a quick overview. Everyone has heard of Feminism, but there is understandable confusion sometimes about what this word actually means. A well educated friend of mine once demonstrated a serious misunderstanding when telling me why she didn’t identify as a feminist in saying “well…they’re bra-burning man-haters, aren’t they?”

“You didn’t just say that did you? Oh wait…yes…you did.”

In its most basic manifestation, feminism is quite simply the establishment and defence of equal rights and equal opportunities for women. It therefore seems to me that to disagree with this is to disagree with the idea that equal rights and opportunities between the sexes is a desirable outcome. Far more people agree with these simple principles than actively label themselves as being a ‘feminist’. There’s loads of discussion that can be had on exploring why this is, but an important thing to recognise is that many people who identify as feminists will have very different ideas about what they feel the best state of affairs should be, for both men and women*.

Of  the many possible contentions and divisions that exist between different feminist philosophies and movements, today the stance on pornography will be considered. Not only is this relevant to a large number of people (far, far more than would admit it) but the issue was of such importance that the debates that raged in the late ’70s and early ’80s actually became known as:

Not even making this up. It was also known as ‘Porn Wars’ , but I don’t love you guys enough to spend that long messing around in Microsoft Paint making two of these.

On one side of the Sex War were the anti-pornography feminists. Key members of this movement include Catharine MacKinnon, and the late Andrea Dworkin. Some of the key arguments include that the production of porn involves women being coerced – either physically , psychologically, or economically. The star of the infamous film Deep Throat‘, Linda Boreman, was publicly supported by both of these women when she publicly came out to say that she had been forced and abused by her husband into making the film.

It doesn’t take someone to be anti-pornography to say that ‘hey, forcing people to perform sex acts…is bad!‘. A criticism that has been levied is that anti-pornographers can imply that sex is something that men enjoy and enforce, but women only endure, marginalising female and feminine sexualities. There have indeed been some female porn stars, identifying as feminists, speak out in saying that their careers are their own free choices and they feel a sense of empowerment and ability to express themselves sexually in their work. One counterargument to this basically runs as ‘the Patriarchy has made you think this way, you are actually being exploited‘. 

Is it just me, or is it a deliciously appropriate state of affairs that Feminism is written right down the length of a shaft?

Now, this previous statement may have caused a small snort of derision. If it did, I’m hoping it’s because of the non-falsifiability of the argument. This response could be touted whatever anyone says – no new way is offered to actually test the idea that porn stars are repressed. Anti-pornographers may rather be shooting themselves in the feet in refusing to recognise the ability of women to choose to engage in and with pornography. I hope that you weren’t thinking the bold statement was a silly thing because of how the word ‘Patriarchy’ is set up as something big and scary. It is a real thing, and it is rather crappy. Without getting hugely sidetracked, it is fair to say that not simply from a global perspective but very much here in the UK and other  culturally similar countries, women experience lower wages for the same positions, greater risk of sexual crime, the socialisation of being the ‘weaker’ ‘delicate’ sex…go hit google, have a little explore.

Whilst it’s quite easy to find problems with some members of the pornographic industry, some ‘sex-positive’ feminists argue that blanket criminalisation (as has been called for by anti-pornographers) is a greater evil, in restricting freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It also isn’t the case that all sex-positive feminists sprung up in response to anti-pornographers – some indeed write and work under the axiom that the Patriarchy mostly holds a monopoly on how women are able to express themselves sexually, and seek to change this, through support of ethical pornography, and pornography featuring ‘strong’, ‘active’ women.

It’s clearly a tricky one. On the one hand, you’ve got people who unambiguously are harmed in the manufacture of porn. The shady, seedy view that is often socially held by those who purchase such materials makes it far less embarrassing to do so with a secretive and private air – there isn’t all that much pressure from the market for responsible, ethically aware, organic, pesticide-free porno. It would be very desirable for more people to pay more attention to how the people in what they look at and watch might really be treated. On the other hand, heavy-handed legal restriction and restriction of material because it is sexual rather than harmful (admittedly sometimes a controversial distinction to make) does no-one any favours, and buys into an old-school conservative (with a little ‘c’, but also probably many Tories as well…) anti-sex, moral absolutism. Arguments have been made that exposure to pornography can cause addiction, and make men more likely to commit sex crimes against women. On the other hand, studies exist that show things like people believe porn to have had a positive effect on their lives, and sex offenders had seen less or milder porn on average than other criminals. There seems to be lots of conflicting claims, certainly enough that I’m not going to attempt to take a clear side. However, it seems to me that abstractly, women (or men, or anyone for that matter) choosing to show off their naughty parts isn’t really the problem. People being rotten to people who are quite often women (in this context) is, which isn’t something one needs to hold the label of ‘feminist’ to have a problem with.

*Apologies that the wordings so far has implied a binary mode of thinking – not doing credit to the individuals who identify neither firmly as men or as women, and others – identities which for brevity’s sake I’ll describe with the term Genderqueer. Many (though far from all) feminist discourses don’t even acknowledge the diversity possible in gender identities, which is problematic all on its own.

Is there a clear way to define a ‘biological’ sex?

One of the most fundamentally obvious things people might think when they’re asked what ‘Gender Studies’ actually is, is that it may look at differences between men and women… in some way. An interesting question to ask might be what actually is it that makes a man ‘a man’ and a woman ‘a woman’? It’s not as obvious as one may think.

When this question was first asked in a legal context (roughly 50 years ago), three factors were used to define ‘biological sex’: the chromosomes of an individual, what gonads (ovaries or testes) they possess, and their genitals. This is overly simplistic as it turns out that many different combinations of these three factors exist than the two categories everyone was assumed (or expected?) to fall into.

The rest of this post will contain science. For anyone apprehensive, I dare you to read on. I double dare you.

We are all told in school that with regards to chromosomes, men = XY and women = XX. For many people this is true. On the Y chromosome, which is a small, stumpy little thing, lies a gene called SRY, which stands for ‘Sex Determining Region Y’. It is responsible for unspecified gonads in a foetus to develop into testes. Seems pretty straightforward. However this area of the Y chromosome can in rare cases cross over to an X chromosome. If this X chromosome is then inherited, an individual who is XX but in all other ways ‘male’ (gonadally, genitally, and in appearance when older) will result. If the SRY-less Y chromosome is inherited, then the foetus will be XY, but otherwise ‘female’. Because sex on a birth certificate is decided just from someone taking a cursory glance, these conditions may be undiagnosed until the age of puberty, or sometimes not at all.

Individuals who possess a SRY gene will develop testes. Testes then produce testosterone, which is responsible for the development of typically male external genital structures (penis and scrotum) and internal genital structures (the bits needed for reproduction inside that aren’t the testicles themselves – mainly specific tubes).

Before sexual differentiation, all foetuses possess two structures where their internal sex organs will be, called the Müllerian and Wolffian structure. Testes produce a substance called ‘Anti-Müllerian Hormone’ (AMH), which causes the Müllerian structure to regress. The testosterone produced by the testes causes the Wolffian structure to develop into male internal structures. Lack of testosterone prevents the Wolffian structure from developing and causes it to regress, and lack of  AMH allows the Müllerian structure to develop into ‘female’ parts.

The ‘triggering amount’ of testosterone needed to cause penis and scrotum development is lower than the amount needed to make Wolffian structures develop – so if a foetus has a condition that results in lower levels of testosterone (and there are quite a few that can), the result will be someone without the corresponding male internal organs to match the external ones.

Whilst there are many, many different genetic conditions that can make fitting clearly into a ‘social sex box’† problematic, there are a couple that illustrate the potential ambiguity in defining sex very well.

The first of these is called CAH, or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. This is a mutation in a gene which causes a particular enzyme the body normally produces, to not work. This enzyme is essential for the production of the substance cortisol, and so people with CAH cannot produce cortisol. The result of this is that the hypothalamus (the region of the brain which monitors certain hormone levels among other things) says:

“There is no cortisol! Release precursors!”

Various human brains (paraphrased)

In normal circumstances such precursors would get made into cortisol – but because the enzyme responsible doesn’t work, the precursors end up getting made into testosterone and other ‘masculising’ hormones – giving XX foetuses male genitalia. Due to not actually having testicles, no AMH gets produced, so female internal structures still form. Sometimes the genitals of such individuals are judged to be ‘ambiguous’, and tests are done at birth that reveal the condition. Some however look like entirely unremarkable boys, and may go completely undetected.

Another interesting condition is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. This is a mutation that occurs on the X chromosome, and happens in a gene that encodes a receptor (protein that senses when a particular thing is present) for testosterone. This means that in XY foetuses, even though testes are produced normally, and testosterone is then produced normally – none of the rest of the body can detect that the testosterone is there…so female genitalia develop. AMH is produced which prevents Müllerian structural development, but the Wolffian structures can’t develop either as the testosterone can’t be detected. AIS babies show no signs of being anything but female, though are XY and have testes. There’s no clearly agreed reason or way to decide whether possession of one trait or another is what indicates a foetus or babie’s ‘true’ sex, if such a truth can actually be said to exist.

AIS can be ‘complete’ or ‘partial’, with the ‘partial’ condition resulting in ambiguous genitalia. To quote from the book ‘Brain Gender’ by Melissa Hines:

The direction of sex assignment of individuals with PAIS depends to some extent on the appearance of the external genitalia; those judged to have a penis too small for success in the male role may be surgically feminized and raised as girls, whereas others are reared as boys and treated with andogens to try to stimulate penile enlargement and development of other male secondary sexual characteristics. In this syndrome and others involving undervirilization in XY individuals, however, additional considerations, such as the desire of the parents for a son versus a daughter can also influence the direction of sex assignment.

It’s fair to say that the result of accident or injury resulting in penile loss wouldn’t result in an individual who would be unable to have ‘success in the male role’, regardless of the fact that they have already been raised and socialised as male. This discussion hasn’t even touched on the importance of how personal understanding and identity of one’s gender can reflect on how one is defined. If an individual ‘feels’ strongly that they are a given sex, how is this necessarily any less biological? Whatsmore, is there even reason why choice of identity (particularly beyond the strongly binary male-female that is enforced by much of society) is ‘less valid’ as a way by which sex can be defined? It’s easy to get into some very tricky philosophical areas related to this, and certainly the arenas of biology and socialisation are virtually impossible to disentangle from each other.

When it comes down to it, none of these factors are how people judge the sex of people they see day-to-day. We look at what clothes people wear, their size, build, and where they have hair. We listen to what they sound like, and what their name might be. Most people rarely question what they’re presented with assuming they can easily put a person into one box or another. The questions asking why people feel the need to do this, and why people react the way they do when they can’t, are further huge areas to consider!

†If you’re into that sort of thing.

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