Monthly Archives: November 2011

Transphobia has no place in feminism

TRIGGER WARNING for transphobia

I write this as a cis woman. If I’ve fucked up anywhere due to cis privilege, please, please CALL ME ON IT. 

Hundreds of women have been killed violently. Many more live in fear of violence, sexual assaults and are at a greater risk of suicide. It’s a fucking travesty.

Yet there are some feminists who don’t really give a shit about this particular group. There are some feminists who actively partake in systemic oppression of others. There are some who call themselves feminists yet express hate-filled transphobia which, on closer inspection, is thoroughly indistinguishable from that coming from outside our supposedly safe space.

The vast majority of feminists are perfectly accepting of trans people. As far as I can discern, the transphobia comes from a small, though noisy minority. Unfortunately, this minority seems to be influential, and still get the platform to speak: I write this post after seeing that people are still paying attention to Julie Bindel, who spouted transphobic thought in an Oxford student newspaper today.

Bindel argues that trans people reinforce ideas of gender essentialism: that by getting surgery, or by living as a women when born a man one somehow metaphorically scabs as they “fly in the face of the feminist notion that feminized behaviour or masculinized behaviour is a social contract”. The logic here is flabbergasting. Apparently gender is a social construct, but it cannot be changed. So much for malleability. In arguing that people must stick with their biologically-assigned gender, Bindel herself is the gender essentialist.

Likewise, transphobic feminist Sheila Jeffreys labels reassignment surgery as “self-mutilation” and suggests that transmen are just lesbians trying to be more manly. It’s nothing more than a nasty hateful diatribe, and by arguing this line, it removes bodily autonomy from people. Bodily autonomy is apparently a privilege that only applies to some in Jeffreys’s book.

The “theory” underlying feminist transphobia is as flimsy as an Argos flat-pack, which suggests to me that it is not theoretically-driven at all, but rather a manifestation of a lack of understanding of intersectionality, combined with a hearty dollop of spite and prejudice. Twitterer @scattermoon recently found herself responding to Julie Bindel’s tweets about Channel 4 show My Transsexual Summer, pointing out that many trans people agreed that the editing of the show presented gender essentialism. This was retweeted by Bindel, yet hours later, Bindel bemoaned the fact that there was little to no condemnation of essentialism in the show from the trans community. Either Bindel has a goldfish memory, or, more likely, she is disingenuously pushing an agenda which is harmful to trans people.

Beyond hate speech dressed up as theorising lies another worrying fashion among some feminists. A few months ago, pseudo-feminist Caitlin Moran casually used the phrase “pre-op tranny”. This is hardly the first time Moran has used oppressive language; she has a history of throwing around words like “retard” to get a cheap giggle. When called out on her use of a word which is used as a weapon, Moran decided to block her critics, so desperate was she to hold on to such a vile word.

The shit from these influential transphobic feminists rolls downhill. The thorny issue of inviting trans women into women-only spaces periodically rears its ugly head, when the patently obvious answer to this debate is “of course. It’s a women-only space. We should allow women into the women only space.” Sometimes this manifests as dangerous, aggressive bullying, such as a feminist blog outing trans women. Given the very real threats many trans people face, I cannot believe that some feminists would gladly expose fellow people to such risk.

Transphobia has no place in feminism. None whatsoever. You can dress it up in as much theory as you want, you can stick your hands over your ears and deny you’ve done anything wrong, you can wilfully twist the truth into lies, but if you’re transphobic, you have no place in feminism.

For too long, we have been giving platform to those who actively harm members of an oppressed group, people on the same team as us. Enough is enough. We don’t need our Bindels or our Morans; they are not part of the struggle, they are manifestations of the problem we are tackling.

We do not have to listen to them. We must not.


Female orgasms and cheating risk: in which evolutionary psychology actually tests a hypothesis

Regular readers will know that a particular bugbear of mine is evolutionary psychology and its persistent habit of throwing out hypotheses without ever bothering testing them. Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen. I found an instance where they test a hypothesis.

The study, “DO WOMEN PRETEND TO ORGASM TO RETAIN A MATE” is rooted in the “sperm selection” hypothesis of female orgasm–that women have orgasms so their wombs act as a kind of jizz-hoover, and they’re more likely to have an orgasm when having sex with a man with good genes. Following from this, men evolved interest in women’s sexual pleasure so that they can be sure their lady-friend is keeping the little deposited parcel of spunk. Women might therefore fake orgasms in order to keep a man interested and stop him from straying. Now, there’s a lot of assumptions in there, building on the sperm-sucking uterus idea. Can this possibly translate into decent research?

In short, not really. What came out of all of this hypothesising was something which can kindly be described as shaky.

The participants were a reasonably decent sample of college-age women, all of whom had been in a committed heterosexual relationship for more than six months. Participants were asked two questions to assess their perceived likelihood of their partner cheating, and filled in a 104-item survey of “mate retention behaviours” such as calling to check where the partner is, dressing nicely to retain interest and holding hands to when other women are around. I have no idea why the poor participants were subjected to a 104-item questionnaire when there’s one which does the job for the far less tedious 38 items. Pretending orgasms was measured by two questions: “During sexual intercourse with your current partner, have you ever pretended you were more sexually excited than you really were?” and “During sexual intercourse with your current partner, have you ever pretended you were having an orgasm when you really weren’t?”

Astute, observant people may notice a problem with the measurement of faking orgasms here. So could a seven year-old. The first question does not measure faking orgasms at all. Despite this rather obvious point, the authors insist on averaging together scores on not faking orgasms with scores on faking orgasms throughout the study. This is further compounded by each item being measured on a ten-point scale ranging from “definitely not” to “definitely yes”. The authors insist on referring to this score as “frequency of pretending orgasms”, but there is absolutely no measure of time in here. It is more a measure of how sure the survey respondent is that they have done this.

Because of this silly wording of the question, I would expect most of the respondents to the survey to reply with either a very low number if they had not faked orgasms, or a large number if they had. Unfortunately, I will never know if I’m right here, as the authors opted not to publish the mean and measure of spread for the responses to this question. In fact, they’re rather shy about providing a lot of this rather useful information.

After gathering some questionable data, the authors proceeded to performing what the scientific community call a metric fuckton of correlation analyses. When someone does a lot of the same sort of analysis on a big data set, they are likely to get a significant result based on chance alone, unless they adjust for this, which the authors didn’t. Furthermore, if the data isn’t continuous, e.g bunched up at the edges like the orgasm-faking data probably was, you can’t really do a correlation analysis on it. It is possible that that’s why they averaged faking-orgasm data with a behaviour that was not faking orgasms–to smooth it out somewhat and make it more continuous.

The authors pulled out the big guns and decided to do mediation analysis to see whether mate retention behaviours, faking orgasms and perceived infidelity risk correlated in a way where they influenced each other. I will spare you the dry statistical details, but they used a method called Baron and Kenny which is awful, awful, awful and can’t show what it says it shows.

Of course, the press has crawled all over this tripe and gone with the authors’ intepretation of their dodgy, dodgy findings. We women fake orgasms so our men won’t stray. Isn’t that sweet in an adorable lady-neurosis way?

Let us imagine, for a second, that the entire study wasn’t completely FUBAR. They properly measured frequency of women faking orgasms, they accounted for statistical problems, and it emerged, solidly, that perceived risk of cheating correlated with faking orgasms.

It still wouldn’t show that women fake orgasms to hold on to a partner, as it’s a correlation. Nowhere have I seen an alternative possibility explored: that women perceive a greater risk of cheating when their partner is crap in bed, or there’s some sort of sexual incompatability which means they feel the need to pretend. Or, more plausibly, the relationships where there is a high perceived risk of cheating and sex that is so unsatisfying as to necessitate faking orgasms are probably ones which are somewhat broken anyway, and the two factors have a common cause which was not measured in the study.

Essentially, female orgasms probably aren’t a method for holding on to a man. It also doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible that the sole reason female sexual pleasure evolved was to more efficiently funnel semen where it needs to be in the first place. What we have here is a study which is flawed from top to bottom, yet the media springs on it as it confirms societal expectations of women: that we want nothing more than to hold on to a man, and our orgasms are important only for making babies.

These tired tropes are trotted out time and time again, repeated without criticism. Most are, with scrutiny, utter rubbish.


Minicab rapes and victim blaming

TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses rape, and links to some possibly-triggering content surrounding rape.

This morning, I received an email informing me that if I didn’t do as TFL told me, I’d get raped.

Dear Stavvers,

I am writing to remind you that unbooked minicabs picked up off the street are dangerous and put you at risk of sexual assault. The safest way to get a minicab home is to:

  • Book it – by phone, email or in a minicab office to guarantee your trip is carried out by a licensed, insured driver and vehicle
  • Check it’s yours – ask the driver to confirm your name and destination before you get in the car, and check the driver’s photo ID
  • Sit in the back – and carry your mobile in case of an emergency

It looks like it’s that time of year again. The tinsel comes out, and women are blamed for getting themselves in trouble. The opening sentence of that email has the tone of a legal disclaimer, pointing out that I have been warned and that TFL will be in no way liable for any sexual assaults on me during the festive period.

In such a short missive, there is a lot to unpack.

The advice given is fairly decent personal safety advice for anyone getting in a car with a stranger. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the email was only sent to women and focused solely on sexual assaults: what of muggings, rip-offs, your common-or-garden non-sexual assaults? This advice benefits everyone, yet it was only sent to women. As @Cillygrrl14 points out, it provides a compelling reason to do away with ticking a mandatory gender box when filling in a form.

Of course, the reason it focuses on women and sexual assault boils down to the way society views rape: that it only affects women, is perpetrated by strangers, and women are in some way wholly responsible for preventing their own rapes.

The victim blaming in minicab rapes is hardly new. A high-profile ad campaign to “reduce the number of minicab rapes” ended up as little more than an exercise in laying responsibility for the rape solely in the hands of the survivor. The posters sternly declare that you are “putting yourself in danger”, prominently featuring a picture of a distressed, crying woman and an all-caps message which sounds like a sarcastic impression of someone being raped. I won’t even link the videos. They’re triggering and horrible. The message is clear: it’s your fault for getting in that cab, you silly cow.

The focus on unlicensed minicabs is also something of a red herring. As far as I am aware, doing The Knowledge does not entail a mandatory training course about enthusiastic consent. In fact, rapes perpetrated by licenced drivers can and do happen, such as the high profile “black cab rapist” case. The major difference between licensed and unlicensed cab driver rapists is that the former are easier to catch, though that smacks of stable doors and bolting horses. It also buys into the stranger-rape narrative wholesale. A woman, on leaving a Christmas party is far more likely to be raped by the charming friend-of-a-friend who offers to ‘see her home safely’ than some predator in a roving rape-wagon. Yet we don’t talk about this; there is no national campaign to point out that the majority of rapists are known to their victims. I use the term ‘victim’ here, as this campaign has made it quite clear I’m a victim just waiting to happen unless I take full responsibility for my own actions.

Ending rape is not the responsibility of each individual woman preventing her own rape. It cannot work that way: it is everyone’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of unlicensed minicab drivers not to rape, of the authorities to adequately work on preventing rapists from being able to rape, of every single person to look out for one another. It is all of our responsibility to thoroughly dismantle a victim-blaming, individualistic culture which allows rape to happen. Somehow, I doubt TFL will send me an email to that effect. It’s easier for them to absolve responsibility altogether.

Stopping rape is never going to be easy. The beliefs are entrenched, the behaviours entrenched, the excuses entrenched. Yet preventing rape is not about not getting in a dodgy-looking cab and keeping your phone in your hand. It’s about overhauling the whole shitty system. I think that’s a fight worth fighting.


Harassing me will not help your cause

“Hey, gorgeous,” he says. I speed up my pace; he follows me. “I just want to talk to you.”

The next one stands right in front of me. “Just give me two minutes,” he says. “I only want to talk to you.”

“You’ve got a pretty smile,” another says with a creeping grin. “Come and talk to me.” He tries to grab my arm. I walk away, as fast as I can.

These interactions happen on a regular basis. Often it’s the usual, the leery-beery tiresome street harassment of daily life, the drunks, the creeps, the men who want to make women feel uncomfortable.

Sometimes, they are not. The men in the incidents outlined above are wearing bibs and told to harass women in the street by major charities. The techniques employed are identical. The objectifying icebreaker. The assertion that they “only want to talk”. The unwanted contact, the grabbing, the following.

The only differences between “chugging” and bog-standard street harassment is the bib, and the fact that you know exactly what it is that the chugger wants.

Having lived and worked in central London for several years now, I have had plenty of contact with chuggers, and witnessed many other incidents. I’ve noticed that the men always go for women, and the women for men. I’ve noticed they pick off people walking alone rather than groups. I’ve noticed they don’t really like to take “no” for an answer.

And I wonder, do such tactics actually work?

It costs the charities a lot of money, outsourcing their fundraising to other companies. It costs the charities money dealing with cancelled direct debits. Is there really much net gain from employing tactics which are at best incredibly annoying?

On a personal level, I disinclined to engage with a man who follows me and shouts at me. I get it enough on a daily basis that I really couldn’t give two shits if that man is doing it to get a bit of money for a spa for blind donkeys rather than to try to have sex with me or frighten me or tell me he likes the bounce of my walk. It’s all the same to me. It’s unwanted contact with a man who will not let me be.

When I have a man standing in front of me, blocking my movement, breathing rum-fumes in my face as he asks for my number, I find the smell of rum turns my stomach and renders me unable to enjoy mojitos for a while. It is exactly the same when a man stands in front of me, blocking my movement, wearing an Action Aid bib and asking for my number. It kind of makes me hostile towards Action Aid, as I associate the charity with ugly patriarchal harassment.

I wonder, are chuggers trained to do this? Are they told, perhaps, to flirt a bit, to break the ice? If so, they are going about it in completely the wrong way, rendering themselves indistinguishable from the oppression of day-to-day walking while female. It is a grotesque parody of social interaction, nothing more than low-level stalking with all of the emotional intelligence of a particularly obnoxious wasp. The only way I could remotely imagine such tactics could possibly be effective is that some people will acquiesce to the chugger’s demand and give up money to make them go away.

If that is the case, charities really need to ask themselves whether doing this is worth it. I simply cannot get on board with any charity that pays men money to harass me in the street. For one, it’s fucking unpleasant. On top of that, there are plenty of men who will do that for free.

Charity is supposed to be nice and good. So why are they paying to upset women?


How to stop your man from cheating

The Sun is hardly known for inhabiting the same universe as the rest of us. The newspaper dwells in this strange limbo where the line between fiction and reality is blurred to nothing. It is hardly surprising, then, that this drivel appeared:

Of course, the solution to partners cheating is not to become a perfect, pliant little domestic goddess. The solution is the following:

SMASH MONOGAMY

SMASH HEGEMONIC HETEROSEXUALITY

SMASH PATRIARCHY

I’m glad the Sun will probably go under soon.

__

Credit to @RupertNeate for bravely combing that rag and finding this, and @jedweightman and @TheNatFantastic for bringing it to my attention.


Happy birthday, Voltairine de Cleyre

Happy birthday, Voltairine!

I hope this virtual birthday card breaks all realms of plausibility and somehow reaches through space-time to you. 145 years after your birth, you’re still remembered and much-admired.

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that those who remember your name comprise a radical bunch of anarchists and feminists. Your speeches and writings, more than a hundred years later are still cited by us, loved by us.

There often comes a moment when I think to myself, ‘what would Voltairine do’? This usually comes when discussions of action come up, and I always think about your essay, Direct Action. The bad news is, in my time, we’re seeing an increase of rejection of the tactics of direct action. These days, you can’t break a window without a clusterfuck of liberal handwringing.

I know it was much the same in your day, and that we still haven’t combatted liberalism, but the state has made itself more powerful than ever, with the advent of new technology,and abuses this privilege to send people down for the smallest, most peaceful actions such as sitting in a shop. They’ve taken away our ability to strike, Voltairine: the once-powerful unions now defanged dinosaurs.

The will of the unions just isn’t there anymore. It’s hard enough to get them to walk out for a day, let alone the burning steel-mills and sabotaged printing-presses you wrote of.

Direct action is the only way we can achieve change, I agree with you and so do many. But while the spirit is willing, right now the flesh is decidedly weak. The best we can muster is a lot of people going camping, which has pissed off the police a bit, but it looks to me like people waiting around to achieve a majority while in a state of mild discomfort. It’s nice to see baby steps, but I feel like the time has come to run head-on at the whole corrupt system.

You’d probably shit a brick if you saw it, Voltairine.

With social issues, we’ve hardly got much better. Although men are no longer legally allowed to rape their wives, most of Sex Slavery still applies. Our mass-media sells women the idea that we must truss ourselves up in discomfort and dedicate our lives to attracting a mate. They mask fear of women’s sexuality in “oh God, think of the children”, thus dragging the next generation into this way of thinking.

As for marriage, you were absolutely spot-on there: your thinking still resonates a century later. The divorce rate is steadily climbing, but despite this, society insists on banging the marriage drum. In good news, the right to marry will soon be extended to same-sex couples. In bad news, that means a whole other bunch of people will have that norm forced upon them. It looks like equality, but it smells like extension of oppression.

In the long run, some things have got a bit better, but really nothing has happened. It’s not your fault, Voltairine, it’s ours. We haven’t been doing enough.

The few of us who remember you, we are continuing your battle, we are inspired by you. We commemorate your birthday. We will fight until your thoughts become an amusing historical artefact, a time capsule of a life before liberation.

Happy birthday, Voltairine!

Love,

Stavvers xxxx

P.S. If you ever fancy coming to visit, try to settle your differences with Emma Goldman. Her and Mary Wollstonecraft have mastered time travel.

Edit: Voltairine, I spoke too soon. On this, your birthday, people in New York are blockading Wall Street, engaging in a massive act of direct action that has been labelled “economic terrorism”. I’m sure you’d be happy.


…but is it evidence?

Have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone who claims they have “evidence” for something and will not shut up about it? Do you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with quarrelling with said “evidence”, even though you know the other person is wrong?

Here is a simple guide to spotting what is good evidence and what is not.

Is it even research?

This shouldn’t even need to be said, but I have seen a lot of people who believe a hypothesis to be evidence. It is not. This is particularly true in the case of evolutionary psychology: much of it is hypothesising without research. In other words, the authors publish a paper about what they think might be the case without actually testing whether it is the case.

It is perfectly possible to publish hypotheses without tests to stimulate discussion and debate. There is a whole journal dedicated to this! Medical Hypotheses has published some gems, including a particularly offensive paper about how “mongoloid” is an adequate name for people with Down’s Syndrome because like people from the Far East, people with Down’s Syndrome sit cross-legged and like eating food with MSG in it. Seriously. That was actually published.

Check whether the “evidence” contains data collection and statistical tests. If it does not, it is likely to be wild speculation, not evidence.

What sort of research is it?

This graphic is called the “pyramid of evidence“. It is a good way of looking at the best sorts of evidence in medicine, although it can be applied elsewhere. At the bottom is “background information”–upon which hypotheses are formed and, as seen above, sometimes published to stimulate debate. Moving up through the pyramid, we see better types of evidence: case studies, cohort studies, randomised controlled trials, and then, right at the top, systematic reviews. A systematic review is the “gold standard” of evidence. It takes all of the data for all of the tests of a theory, drug, medical intervention, etc, and puts it together into one data set, spitting out an “effect size” which tells us exactly how effective or “correct” the object in question is.

The differentiation between different types of research is important. Cohort studies are usually correlational: while it is not entirely true that correlation does not imply causation, correlational studies can only point us in the right direction. To properly establish causation, we need to manipulate some variables. Say, for example, we want to test whether exposure to feminist thought leads to lower levels of sexism. This can be tested by exposing one group of people to feminist thought, while having a control group of people who were not exposed to feminist thought. Before and after exposure, one would measure levels of sexism. This study has actually been done, and found that sexism decreased following exposure to feminism.

If the “evidence” being provided is one correlational study, then it might not be very good evidence. Ask if there’s any systematic reviews available, or at the very least an experimental study.

Quality of the evidence

On the evidence pyramid, there is a second dimension: quality of the research. Quality is made up of a number of important attributes, and it is important to check whether the evidence is good quality or not.

One crucial indicator is the sample. To get good results, the experiment needs to be conducted on a large group of people. The sample should, ideally, comprise of different people from different walks of life. Unfortunately, a lot of psychological research is conducted on psychology students, which throws a lot of it off-kilter, as students are younger and richer than most of the rest of us, and a lot wiser to taking psychological tests. Look and see who was in the study. It is a useful way of understanding how well the results apply to everyone else.

Another aspect of quality is the state of the comparison group. If there is no comparison group whatsoever, be very cautious: the evidence is probably terrible quality. I have seen many people try to draw conclusions about the differences between men and women based on studies of only men, or only women. The comparison group, if  present, needs to be, of course, comparable. If a study is testing the differences between men and women, and the women in the comparison group are less educated, for example, then the results could be down to education rather than gender.

For the sake of brevity, I point you towards this excellent (freely available) paper which teaches readers to critically evaluate the quality of a paper. Knowledge of this is power.

Popular science books are not evidence

Anyone can write and publish a book, particularly with the age of self-publishing. Even books from “big names” such as Steven Pinker are not good evidence, as books are not subject to peer review. Peer review is a process which is used in the academic community for checking whether a paper is valid: before anyone publishes the paper, it will be read through by several other experts in the same field of research. Often, the reviewers will want to see some of your data to verify your findings. They also, more often than not, send the paper back to you and tell you that perhaps you might want to reinterpret your findings or clarify certain bits of the research, or that you’ve made a massive honking error. They also ask you to draw attention to the limitations of your research, so readers can be aware of any of the possible pitfalls in the papers outlined above. It’s a lengthy process, but it means that  journals aren’t publishing any old crap.

For books, this is not the case. Often, the text is read by an editor with no experience in the field of research. If the writer fucks up somewhere, it won’t get caught and will be published anyway.

One example of this is the book The Spirit LevelThere are a few holes in the evidence presented in the book which are dealt with in the reply book The Spirit Level Delusion. The author of Delusion rightly criticises problems which appear in the book, though, unfortunately, is tilting at windmills: most of the peer-reviewed evidence upon which The Spirit Level is based stands up pretty well. It is only some of the bits that didn’t get peer-reviewed and were thrown into the book anyway which can be picked apart. Essentially, The Spirit Level stands up, but due to the sloppiness of the book publication process, it left itself with some open goals in the form of downright shoddy analysis, leaving many (wrongly) thinking the entire theory disproved.

If the only evidence linked is books, be wary. Demand to see peer-reviewed evidence instead. These days, a lot of it is available for free, and even if a paper is not, you can usually see the abstract.

I hope this guide will be helpful for would-be troll-slayers. Use your knowledge. Use it wisely. Happy hunting!


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