The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

obesitycore:
the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

lclfizz:
A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

pervocracy:
I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.


Legitimising Sex Work: The Counter-Arguments to Your Anti Sex Work Position

This is a controversial opinion, especially among second-wave feminists and radfems and even some intersectionally-aware feminists, but I firmly believe in legalising and destigmatising sex work in developed countries. I come from a firm sex-positive standpoint and very much support the Safe, Sane and Consensual Risk-Aware Consensual Kink creed found in the kink community*. This post is written for people who come from a similar viewpoint, but may still feel conflicted about sex work.

As I am not a sex worker myself, I would welcome any corrections to this post.

People who identify as sex workers do a variety of different work, and it’s not just prostitution**. There are people who make pornography, there are people who strip, there are people who you can pay for a bunch of kinky shit, but may not actually involve sex. Sex work is partly legal in Australia, however it will depend on the type of work and laws vary from state to state. Famously, the porn site Abby Winters moved away from my hometown because of strict Australian laws regarding the depiction of real sexual activity – regardless if it’s completely consensual and agreed to under ethical conditions.

Before we begin, let’s get some common objections to sex work out of the way first:

Sex workers are primarily women, and we don’t want women selling their bodies!

If sex workers are “selling their bodies” then so are manual labourers. And athletes. And office workers. In fact, anyone who has a job is “selling their bodies” because everyone is selling what their bodies can do for money. That’s what labour is. In some cases, people are literally selling their minds for jobs that are brain-intensive – like researchers, writers, and basically every creative job ever (which, arguably, can be almost every job).

The truth is that no one can really “sell their bodies” because slavery is universally illegal. To imply that sex workers are “selling their bodies” is in some ways incredibly offensive because in my mind it implies that all sex workers have no personal choice about the jobs they do and the clients they have. It implies that all sex workers have no agency over their own consent.

(Hold that thought. I’ll get to the issue of choice and consent later in the post.)

Sex workers only do it for the money! They’re addicted to money!

Similarly, anyone who has a job can be said to “only do it for the money”.

There’s an odd few who might actually labour in their chosen career paths for free, but that’s definitely the minority. A lot of people hate their jobs. A lot of people are completely indifferent about their jobs. A lot of people would prefer to never work again, if not for the money.

Some of those working people could probably live on significantly less than they’re currently earning – yet they still choose to work more hours in order to afford more. Are they “addicted to money”?

(If your answer is ‘yes’ that’s probably a discussion for another post. But if your answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve also failed to identify why this objection applies moreso to sex work than any other paid work.)

The sex industry is sexist, racist, and caters primarily to straight white men!

So are Hollywood movies. So are books. So is modelling.

Much of this blog has been dedicated to deconstructing problematic media. Media produced by the sex industry is just another problematic thing that you can be a fan of. Sex work and pornography itself, however, is not fundamentally problematic. Current mainstream attitudes are not the be-all and end-all to what pornography can be.

Like all media, there are people who are actively trying to break new ground in representation. There are sex workers who are queer, fat, disabled, etc etc all actively trying to give representation to the spectrum of human sexuality rather than just the straight, white male view. There is even an annual Feminist Porn Award.

CHOICE, CIRCUMSTANCE & COERCION

First, you should read dana boyd’s article about the model of Choice, Circumstance and Coercion in sex work, because it will cover the same ground, and in more detail. To quote the article:

On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually… On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain… The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender dysphoria, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.

I want to make clear that it’s not surprising that many sex workers from marginalised backgrounds will operate from the “coercion” or “circumstance” category (although obviously not all). This is because sex work is not an idyllic career that exists outside the framework of privilege, but nothing does so it’s not particularly “special” in that regard.

 

COERCION VS CIRCUMSTANCE

In my view, the difference between the Circumstance and Coercion categories is primarily one of information. As trite as it sounds, knowledge and information is power. Someone who is faced with homelessness but who can or knows to contact emergency accommodation and support is in a different position from someone who faces homelessness and is not aware of their options, or that there’s even an option to be had. The former makes an informed choice, and their individual agency should be respected because they are in the best position to make the choice for themselves. The latter don’t have a functional choice because they’re not aware of other options.

The former I would categorise in the Circumstance category – those who have chosen sex work from informed consent; and the latter I would place in the Coercion category – those who work in sex work non-consensually. There is some grey area about what constitutes “informed consent” but that’s a discussion that falls outside the boundaries of this post, suffice to add that the question extends to areas outside of sex work as well.

Sex-positivists (and I include myself in this category) are used to thinking about sex and consent in a very straight-forward way. To have sex, you should seek consent in a very active way from your partner/s. To not do so is to run the risk of raping someone.

But why do people consent to sex? People may consent because they’re in a romantic relationship with their partner… but they might just want to get their rocks off. They might also consent for less emotionally healthy reasons, like to get back at an ex, to boost their own self-confidence, to manipulate another person. I’m not saying these are “good” reasons to have sex, but as long as both parties consent, it’s not rape (although it may be other forms of emotional abuse which I’m not going to deal with in this post).

And, except for some very very limited circumstances, the reason why people consent to sex is generally not my business as long as the consent is there. Similarly, the reason why some sex workers give for working in the industry may not fill me with joy and cupcakes, but ultimately it’s not my business why someone else chooses to consent to sex.

Anti-sex work lobbyists will often point to the fact many sex workers in this category will have problems with drug and alcohol addiction, mental illnesses, homelessness, etc and are resorting to sex work because they can’t get money anywhere else. If that’s the case, then it’s clearly NOT sex work that is the problem, but the fact that people don’t have alternative options. If a sex worker said they’d rather be working as a waitress, but that their wages as a waitress did pay them enough to live off, then that’s a problem with the minimum wage or the social welfare system. If they’ve made a decision to do sex work instead of becoming homeless or not having enough to eat, why do anti-sex work lobbyists focus on eradicating sex work instead of rallying for more support to low-income earners?

Lobbyists will often focus on the fact that some sex workers have very few other choices – which may be true – but this rhetoric detracts from individual agency and the conscious choice being made. Someone may personally feel that sex work is the better choice out of two bad options, so the aim should not be to make sex work an equally bad option, but to make the other option better, or increase the number of options that person has access to.

 

TRAFFICKING AND SEX WORK

I place trafficked sex workers solely within the Coercion category and their work as non-consensual, ie. rape and sexual assault.

Traffickers will often prey on uneducated women from developing countries, lure them to a developed country with the promise of a jobs as maids and cleaners, and then force them into debt bondage at their destination country. Traffickers will claim that the girls owe them money for the trip, food, accommodation – and when they can’t meet the costs, the traffickers force them to work in brothels as sex workers.

The women have little or no English. They are in a foreign country where the only people they know are literally their captors. They are told by the traffickers that the police won’t help, will arrest them and/or won’t believe them. They are told they’ve signed binding legal contracts when they have not. Sometimes they not only threaten and assault the women themselves, but also threaten their families in their home towns. From the minute they enter the country, the women are entirely reliant on the traffickers.

I want to make a distinction clear: there are foreign sex workers who might come to a developed country in order to pursue career opportunities in sex work. The exchange rate may be quite favourable, or perhaps the destination country has better laws for sex work. Either way, they’re in a very different situation from women who have been trafficked.

Trafficking and forced labour occurs in both legal and non-legal brothels, and the fact that licensed brothels have been complicit in people trafficking has been an argument against legalising sex work. However, what’s less often spoken about is the fact that other kinds of legal, licensed businesses also participate in people trafficking.

Trafficking does not solely occur within the purview of sex work. People trafficking and forced labour occurs in many industries: at restaurants, factories, farms and retail shops. Anti-slavery Australia gives four case studies as an example – only one of which is about sex work.  But no one calls on the government to ban construction work, or fruit-picking, or table service at restaurants. This is because we recognise those jobs to be legitimate in and not fundamentally harmful in themselves. There is no reason why we can’t apply the same reasoning to sex work, which is fine when consensually agreed to, but abhorrent when it is forced upon people.

This should be obvious, but maybe it bears saying: No sex worker I’ve ever met, heard or read has supported people trafficking or forced labour. Every sex worker I’ve encountered is disgusted by the practice. Conflating sex work with people trafficking and forced labour is lazy and intellectually dishonest and if you take that approach, you may as well conflate the hospitality, retail and agriculture with the same.

 

THE CASE FOR LEGITIMISING SEX WORK

First, sex work is no different from any other labour that is sold for money, and the sex industry is no more or less problematic than other job industries.

Second, if disadvantaged people choose sex work as their best option when they are faced with a number of bad options, then it is the government and our society that is at fault, not sex work. Money ought to be spent in improving access to mental health services, education system, drug and alcohol programs – not spent trying to dissuade people from choosing sex work. The problem is not that they’re choosing sex work to survive, but that our society cannot provide adequate health, monetary and social support for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community.

Third, people trafficking is not exclusive to sex work. People are trafficked across a number of different industries, but the majority of businesses within those industries operate lawfully and morally.

Consequently, there are a number of things that occur when sex work is criminalised:

If people are in desperate situations, criminalisation may not dissuade people and they may turn to sex work anyway. In the end, it would only result in a criminal record for a lot of marginalised people, and extra administrative costs for the police and the courts. Alternatively, it may mean that people will need to pick “the worse option”, whether that means working three jobs or becoming homeless or something else.

For people being trafficked, those sex workers remain controlled by their traffickers who will have no qualms in directing them to break criminal laws. The fact they’ve committed a crime will be used as additional ammunition against them by their captors.

In the end, all criminalisation would do is curb the choices of those sex workers in the Choice category – the most privileged group with the most opportunities available to them – which also happens to be the category of people who we are the least concerned about engaging in sex work.

If we are really concerned in helping disadvantaged and marginalised people, banning, criminalising or stigmatising sex work is not going to solve anything. Much of the criticism thrown about relates not to sex work per se, but to the system of privilege that affects all aspects of our society, sex work included. The fact of the matter is that most mainstream opinions towards sex work are still firmly couched in anti-feminist, anti-sex rhetoric about women – and the idea that governments should dictate what women can or can’t do with their bodies.

 

*Edit: With thanks to a friend for pointing out the problematic aspects of using SSC and that the better acronym is now RACK.
**Edit 2: Please note that “prostitution” and “prostitute” are generally not accepted terms to apply to sex work and workers. I have used this term in the absence of anything else that describes exactly what I want to convey, but please note that the preferred words are always “sex work” and “sex worker”.


Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.


Accepting Help from Homophobes

I wrote a post on Tumblr about the Salvos a few months back, but the issue of homophobia in the Salvation Army has recently become headline-worthy in Australia since singer Darren Hayes’ called to boycott the organisation.

I’m the last person who is going to defend rampant homophobia, and let’s be clear, that’s certainly the institutionalised belief system within that organisation. All of us on SJL are strong proponents of secularism and exist somewhere on the agnostic to atheist scale (okay, I’m probably the only person closer to that agnostic point). The problem is that no one else is really providing the same services as the Salvation Army – at least not where I live.

In my work I am regularly in contact with people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, newly-arrived migrants with little or no English, women in or who have come from violent relationships, people with severe mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who are barely getting by financially. And when those clients need access to free financial counselling, food vouchers, public transport tickets and general community support I usually refer them to the Salvation Army or another religious-based organisation that probably doesn’t have more progressive views on being queer.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. First, these organisations need to be based in the local area where the clients are living. Yes, there may be a secular organisation doing the same work in the city, but considering clients may need to be regular contact with caseworkers, it’s not practical to be making referrals to places with more than 30 minutes travel time one-way. The additional issue is that clients may not have access to a car, live near public transport, or even necessarily have the money to access public transport.

Second, these non-secular organisations are often a one-stop shop for a disadvantaged person. If someone can pick up food vouchers and book an appointment with a caseworker to find emergency housing, have another appointment with a financial counsellor about their managing their finances all at the same place then that’s going to be the easiest and most convenient way for them to seek help.

Third, while I don’t have too much experience in this, my understanding is that those organisations will provide support to queer people if they meet their merits criteria (which will be an assessment of assets and income) despite their homophobic doctrine. I have heard stories about queer people being turned away from the Salvation Army in the USA, but so far I’ve not heard any similar stories about the organisation in Australia. And while it would be best if queer people were not being provided support by a homophobic organisation, if someone is severely marginalised then the important thing is that they are getting that support in the first place. Unfortunately neither I, nor my clients can be particular about my referrals because simply, there’s often no choice to be had.

From an activism point of view, what would be far more helpful is supporting and establishing secular charities that provide the same services without the homophobia. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as it may seem. One practical obstacle is that where service-provider already exist in a region, it’s often difficult to find money or funding to set up a service that would do substantially the same thing – even if the existing service is non-secular and discriminatory. There’s the additional self-sustaining cycle of such organisations from being the sole provider of aid in area. Because people come to know and rely on a particular organisation, that group gains more social capital. Any new service would need to forge new ties and take the time to establish themselves in the area, and it’s far from guaranteed that people would flock to an alternative.

Am I saying you should donate to the Salvation Army? Honestly, that’s entirely your own choice, as is the choice to boycott the organisation. But let’s be clear that boycotting an organisation is a privilege not everyone has. People in need of emergency aid and community support often aren’t able to choose which organisations they approach, even if they are aware of the homophobia in an institution. And while it often irks me to make a referral, it would be worse if I denied marginalised and disadvantaged people access to the help they need.


The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

A while ago, tumblr user “iamateenagefeminist” compiled a list of non-oppressive insults, a public service that will never be forgotten. The people of tumblr wept with joy and appreciation (although it should be noted that the people of tumblr will literally weep over a drawing of an owl). The list is not perfect, and “ugly” should NOT be on there as it reinforces beauty hierarchies. Still, I was happy to find it, because I am always looking for more insults that don’t reinforce oppressive social structures.

But if you scroll through the reblogs you’ll see that not everyone was enamoured of the idea of creating this list at all. In particular, several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

By the way, the first person who says “But then why are TV shows a social justice issue?” in the comments will have their head put on a pike as an example to others. Cultural narratives are part of what builds and reinforces social roles, and those determine what opportunities a person has – and the rights they can actually exercise, even if they have them in the law. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to accept this idea, you will now google “stereotype threat”, you will read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you will watch this speech by Esther Duflo on women and development (which talks about stereotypes and outcomes), and THEN you may return to this blog.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.


No Free Lunch for Social Justice

In economics, we have a saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. We like to say this because it expresses two important observations. The first is the lesson about “opportunity cost”, which is that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. If you get a “free” lunch, you may not be paying money but you’re giving up the chance to have lunch somewhere else with someone else. The second lesson is that, as yet, humans cannot make something from nothing. So somebody somewhere is paying for this lunch. Someone made the lunch and their time was valuable, someone provided the inputs and those inputs were valuable. Lunch does not materialise out of nowhere.

This does not mean we cannot create something greater than the sum of the inputs. We know that certain things we make and do provide benefits far greater than the cost of the inputs (a vaccination is a great example). Actually, we routinely do this! Humans are amazing. But the inputs cost something, all the same.

I want to try to convince you that the “no free lunch” concept is something we need to apply to social justice. First let’s agree that as a movement, we have goals, which in general are just lunch on a grander scale. (Actually some of us have days where “lunch” becomes a serious goal, but let’s leave that aside.) Some of these goals are major, system-wide changes. We would like the rate of sexual assault of women to be as low as that of men. We would like the murder rate for transpeople to be as low as the murder rate for cispeople. We would like the incarceration rate for men of colour to be the same as for white men in the USA. We would like our media to celebrate diversity of appearances rather than enforcing a beauty heirarchy. We would like mental health to be taken as seriously in our community as physical health. And so on, ad infinitum.

I wish I could bring you good news on these goals but I can’t. I can only reiterate something most of us already know, but sometimes forget: If these things are going to happen in our societies we are going to have to give up something to get them. And these things are a lot harder to achieve than lunch is.

It is surprisingly easy to forget this truth, because we like to think that the world is going in the right direction of its own volition. You hear people say “the tide is turning” and “things will get better”. You hear them ascribe intent to the universe where there is no intent. We have to stop using the passive voice. If the tide is turning it is because somebody turned it. If things get better it is because somebody made it happen. The world is not on some kind of totally inevitable slide towards awesomeness that we just need to sit back and watch happen. The things we want to happen will not materialise out of nowhere.

Many of these problems need to be addressed at a regulatory level because they persist due to “coordination failures”. That is, we are stuck at a bad place because a single individual cannot make a big difference, and we can’t commit to work together on our own. That’s why we have government at all, to step in and help us get to the better outcome. (I’m not saying the government really does this, it clearly doesn’t do this a lot of the time, but it does some of the time and that’s it’s real job.)

We have good evidence that government could, if it wanted to and was sensible about implementation, actually change things. If you would like to know more about this, there’s a great speech by Professor Esther Duflo here on gender equality and development. Her research shows that introducing quotas for women in local government in India eradicates unconscious bias against women as leaders. Another great example: simply telling young girls that on the math test they are about to take, girls perform as well as boys on average, makes girls perform as well as boys on average.

I do not have such neat examples for how to fix problems that face trans people and fat people and PoC and disabled people. But that is probably due to my ignorance and not due to their nonexistence.

Now these policies are costly to implement in many cases, and they cost a lot more than lunch. As Esther points out, policies favouring women in development are more costly than gender-blind programs that give the same impact but for both genders. Often, the mere fact that these policies will disrupt the status quo or require re-training and follow-up mean they have costs. Also, we are going to have to fight hard to get them implemented because people are ignorant of their own biases, and because people with power don’t like to give it away. That fight is going to cost us too. These policies will be a net benefit overall in the vast majority of cases, but too often we confuse a “net benefit” proposition with a “no cost” proposition. When we confuse them, we get lulled into complacency and think we won’t have to fight for what we want. We can’t afford that.

But not all our goals are big, system wide, total overhaul goals. We also have what I’ll call “marginal goals”. While the system-wide problems persist, we can still work within the status quo to change things on the margin. So for example, we would like to live in a world where people recognise the persistent struggles of oppressed peoples instead of dismissing them. We would like to live in a world where the default response to a person complaining of systematic erasure is not “I don’t believe you, prove it!” but “That’s awful, would you like to talk about it?”. We would like to live in a world where there is justice for Trayvon Martin and where Mark Aguhar will be remembered. We would like to live in a world where, if a white person is told they are being racist, they say “I hadn’t considered that, I’m sorry, I’ll try to educate myself” not “Why did you call me a mean word? You’re so meaaaan! How are you any better than a racist if you are so mean?!?!”

In as far as we ourselves have some forms of privilege, these are things we can achieve by changing our own behaviour. White people, we’ve all been that white person, and the only way for us to get rid of that kind of white person is to check ourselves and check our people when they start mouthing off. Men, same goes for you. And cis people. And thin people. And able-bodied, mentally healthy people. And so on. If you want to consider yourself an “ally”, it is going to cost you. As well it should. Nothing is free, and as an ally you are less downtrodden than the people you are aiming to help, so you can afford to expend your energy and effort here better than they(we) can.

Because yes, it takes effort. Yes, it gets tiring. Yes, if you commit to listen every time someone tells of their oppression you will be committing a lot of time that you might wish you could spend talking about your favourite TV show. Yes, if you promise to check yourself and examine your privilege you are in for a long struggle. If you commit to this path you are in for a lot of painful realisations. Personally I shudder to remember that I once defended “The Blind Side” to a non-white friend. I’m sure she shudders to recall the time and energy she spent convincing me it was problematic, when she certainly had no obligation to do so. But she did it and I was willing to listen and together, we made me less racist than I had been before.

Changing your own behaviour takes time and effort and determination and unrelenting self-awareness. It takes up your energy. That is how you know you are doing anything at all. If your activism is always easy, and if it’s always fun for you, if you never have to give up anything, you might not really be doing that much. Nothing is free, not even lunch, and social progress at the margins is no exception to this rule.

Of course, you are not called upon to compromise your mental or physical health in this struggle. I do not recommend that you use up all your emotional and psychological resources on this fight, you have to take care of yourself – and self-care is a form of activism and resistance in a world that is trying to erase you. I also want to make it clear that it’s not the job of marginalised people to expend their effort educating others on their own marginalisation. Marginalised people are already expending effort just to survive under oppression.

But most of us have some form of privilege, and it is particularly in that area that we need to do some extra work. So while I don’t consider it my duty to explain feminism to men, as a white person I do need to educate and school other white people on anti-racism whenever I can. Here’s the secret: marginalised people don’t give a shit who identifies as an “ally” – it’s all about who actually speaks up and defends people against oppression. Talk is cheap. And you know what they say about the relative importance of actions and words. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself in constant pain, but if you’re never or rarely expending effort or experiencing discomfort, then that is a warning sign.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in social justice and not anywhere. I know most of you know this. But we all have privilege, and sometimes that means we forget it. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that the moment you find yourself thinking “But we’re discussing sci-fi right now, why does Angie keep bringing up racism?” is the moment where you need to choose the more painful option for you. Because that uncomfortable moment where you have to give up your fun conversation and have a sad, serious discussion, is the moment where you can actually change something. Even if it’s just at the margin.


Vagina Dialogues

OK, let’s get some comedy nerdery happening on this blog. Australian comedy nerdery, that’s right, niche. (Some of the things I’m nerdy about are stuff you literally probably haven’t heard about unless you’re Australian and like comedy).

This week Corinne Grant wrote an opinion piece  about gay male comedians making sexist comments about women. Her main contention was that:

Gay male comics can declare how disgusting they find women’s bodies, how ugly older women are, how women are hags, nags, sluts, bitches and whores and the audience will laugh.

It was quite a provocative piece and in the latter part she speaks with Tom Ballard, a gay male comedian who is kind of a big deal, used to date one of the other best known Aussie gay male comedians (it’s a small country OK) and now does the youth radio station breakfast here. Ballard later wrote his own response blog.

I think the politics of this issue (in the social justice sense) are murky and ripe for getting into a oppression-Olympics showdown so lets try and avoid that. I can see the political validity in gay male comedians challenging heteronormativity, of course. Masculinity is often defined as being intrinsically related to being attracted to women. So getting onstage and saying “I am a man and I find lady bits gross” can be seen as a radical move.

However, the paradox of the way women’s bodies are viewed in society is that while women’s bodies are constantly arranged and displayed in a way that is pleasing to men and stresses the desirability of “womanliness”, so too women’s bodies are constantly attacked for failing to reach those standards. An almost impossible criteria of attractiveness are expected for women. Not too fat but not too thin, curvy but not too curvy (because then you’re tacky), enough makeup to appear with perfect skin but not so much you look “cheap”; women’s bodies have to be just right and they are regularly judged to be lacking. And let’s be honest, constructions of female sexiness are usually not about how great vaginas are. Framed in this context, a man on stage talking shit about women’s bodies seems less than politically-pure.

Now let’s get real here, I think that we can all agree that jokes about how old women are gross and people with penises are the only ones worth talking to are not OK. We’re all humourless feminists here, right? But seriously, if that’s the point of your routine, you should really be trying harder. I spend enough time putting up with sexist bullshit in my life, and that stuff makes me want to cry not laugh. Constantly calling women by nasty names is just not cool. Here I am talking about a context where it’s on-stage and public, and the women in question aren’t OK with it. I mean if all your female friends love being referred to as sluts face-to-face I would first triple check and then go for it (because there IS a difference to what you say when performing for the public and what you say to our friends, and there should be). Tom Ballard’s response blog is actually pretty on board with this, and I really admire how both he and Grant have managed to have an actually civil and respectful conversation. I’m also glad that both of them are coming from a standpoint that “political correctness” is worth considering and if you are going to comment on this post this will also be expected as a baseline.

So the real issue here is vagina (and isn’t it always, amirite? Urgh. I don’t even know what that means).  That’s right, we’re going to have an in-depth conversation about what is OK to say about vaginas, PC police/Social Justice League, suit up! I suppose the question is “can you hate vaginas and love women?” There are plenty of women (I have even met some of them!) who would say yes, because that is them. It is really problematic to tell a group of people how their experience of being part of being a member of that group can be, especially if that group is marginalised. (I say “can be” because as is sadly, but not surprisingly, missing from this debate is that not all women have vaginas and not all men don’t, but urgh, society).

I think an interesting corollary to this is that my friends and I went to see Josh Thomas (Tom Ballard’s ex, as mentioned above) a couple of years ago, after he had just recently come out. He talked about how terrifying gay sex was and how you should really avoid it if at all possible. (He also made a particular comment about how great and useful vaginas were.) One of my (straight, female) friends thought that this was a homophobic attitude for Thomas to hold. I vehemently disagreed and then attempted to get into a discussion about the mechanics of anal sex (something it should be pointed out, that is not reserved to gay men), in a quiet cafe, you guys should all be very jealous we aren’t friends IRL. (Sadly my friend was not keen to discuss lubrication right then.)

I suppose my point here is that just because you’re gay you don’t have to be overjoyed about every aspect of the experience of being a gay man, and if you have a vagina you don’t have to be delighted by all its functions. I mean, let’s talk about periods here. There are women for whom menstruating is a beautiful and natural cycle of life (apparently). I mostly find that it hurts, makes me cranky and is kind of gory (yeah that’s right, so much for the fairer sex, blood GUSHES out of my body once a month). I feel pretty silenced by the whole ‘it’s all beautiful and natural’ approach.

On Twitter I saw someone (actually another one of Josh Thomas’ exes, lolz Australia) suggest that unless Grant loved everything about vaginas she was being a hypocrite (see Grant’s pretty hilarious response). I don’t really think women expressing negative opinions about their genitalia and not being happy to hear this as a punchline from men is “hypocritical”. Just like there are words which are acceptable if used by African Americans and not if used by white people, this is not a level playing field situation. You know why? Because it was NEVER a level playing field to begin with. See: privilege. Of course there is overlap here, and maybe gay male comedians would argue that being grossed out by lady parts is an intrinsic part of being gay and by telling them not to I am silencing them.

Tom Ballard in his response to Grant talks about the special relationship that women and gay men share. I certainly think there is merit to this argument, often there is a different dynamic to this kind of a relationship, although obviously its not a get out of jail free card. I thought it was particularly interesting that he referenced the relationship that female comedians have with their gay fanbases. He mentions Kathy Griffen and I was reminded of this clip from her (seriously great, omg I love her) show where she objects to being called “fish” by members of her gay male fanbase. So the relationship is clearly far from perfect.

In the end, I have failed to come up with some kind of grand unified theory for comedians talking about vaginas on stage. I think there probably isn’t one to be found, because there are a lot subtleties, statements like “I think vaginas are gross” “We all know vaginas are gross” and “Every time I hear the word vagina I want to gag” are different levels of problematic to me, and I think there is an argument that the first one is acceptable but you can argue with me in the comments (respectfully! And I don’t promise to answer. I have important things to Tumblr work on, OK).


Conventional Beauty, and Other Sucker’s Bets

As people who oppose beautyism, I think it is useful to us to separate out two concepts which are usually bundled up into the words “attractiveness” or “beauty”. The first is conventional attractiveness or beauty, defined by the extent to which one possesses the set of qualities portrayed as desirable in our culture and society. The more of these traits one has, the better one fits into the pre-defined (but ever changing) sociocultural mould. This is one idea bound up in the concept of “attractiveness”.

The second is, for me, the more useful meaning of the word beauty. It is the property of being found to be, or experienced as, attractive or beautiful by oneself and/or by others. This consists of yourself or others experiencing positive feelings about your appearance, and I think it could be broadened to encompass other aspects of your person. Despite what most of us think, this concept and the sociocultural checklist concept are not the same things at all. I think the checklist definition should rightly be called “conventionally attractive” and should never be confused with real attractiveness.

Clearly, not everyone is conventionally attractive. Not everyone ticks most or even half of the ticky boxes required. However, it’s no contradiction to say that someone who is not conventionally beautiful is still actually beautiful. Even if you don’t consider yourself beautiful (this can take time if you grow up being told you’re not), the odds are someone else out there does. In fact, the number of people who are not considered attractive by anyone on the planet is vanishingly small and asymptotically approaches zero. If you are not conventionally attractive, then by definition (in the limit) you are unconventionally attractive. Thus, everyone is attractive. QED.

Now maybe more humans are attracted to humans that fall within the bounds of conventional attractiveness. Nobody knows for sure because there’s no control group of people who haven’t been exposed to any beauty ideals at all. But maybe. We unconventionally attractive people might therefore have fewer suitors. But that doesn’t make much of a difference: how many people can you really be romantically involved with at once? Like, 4 or 5 at the absolute maximum, am I right?

So, if you (like me) are not conventionally attractive: congratulations! Being unconventionally attractive can be very liberating! It has pushed me to learn to find myself attractive on my own terms, rather than on my culture’s terms. Some conventionally attractive people have also had this epiphany, of course, but I think it would have taken me longer to learn this if I were conventionally hot. I find it freeing to feel that I am attractive if I decide I am, rather than relying on the extent to which I fit into a sociocultural ideal. This means that no matter if I wake up tomorrow with a blemish or if I put on weight, I’m still mentally considering myself attractive, and that’s really what matters.

Of course, being unconventionally attractive has serious downsides in a culture obsessed with conventional beauty and prone to beautyism. This is especially true for women: we are consistently told by our media and many around us that we are only worthwhile if people (usually cis-het-male people) find us beautiful or want to have sex with us – and that if we fail to tick even one box on the cultural attractiveness list, then nobody wants us.

Obviously this is bullshit, but it’s hard to shake. It’s everywhere, not least because it’s profitable for the cosmetic and fashion and diet industries. And if we move in social circles filled with people who believe this message, the message can become self-fulfilling: the people who do find us attractive will be deterred from voicing their feelings for fear of being judged by their peers. In addition, recent studies show that all genders rate women wearing makeup as consistently more competent and smarter than those not. There is no point denying that people who are not conventionally attractive are discriminated against.

Clearly, conventionally hot people have it easier in the sense that the world will treat them better. The same way white people, male-presenting people, thin people, able-bodied people, cis-gendered people, straight people, neurotypical people, and rich people are treated better. Clearly, it is the unequal treatment that needs to be changed, not the existence of “unattractive”, queer, poor, disabled, non-white, and other “other” people. But as people, and especially as women, we are repeatedly told that we have to be hot to be worth anything.

So, like other marginalised groups, “unattractive” people can too often find themselves in the awful trap of looking around at a world that treats them badly and concluding that this is the treatment they deserve. They may feel that they have to change if they want to be treated better, and if they can’t change, they have to excel at literally everything else to the exclusion of any personal desires or individuality. This isn’t just about unconventional beauty – almost all marginalised groups are sold the idea that conforming to dominant culture will lead to some kind of undefined happiness from which they are currently excluded. Of course it’s a lie. That’s not how oppression works or how happiness works – and on some level we might even suspect we’re taking a sucker’s bet, desperate as we are. Faced with a system that erases us for being different, we want so badly to be accepted that we participate in our own erasure. That’s part of how kyriarchy works.

As a result, it is my experience that the hardest part about being outside of the socially approved mould is not how other people treat me but the way I treat myself - though I want to be clear, this starts off largely as a result of their treatment. The worst part about not living up to that golden ideal is that you believe that the suffering you experience as a human being is caused, or at least exacerbated, by how you look. You begin to believe that if only you were conventionally beautiful, you would not be lonely. You would be affirmed and wanted and validated. You would like yourself. You would feel loved.

The reality is, however, that while you would be treated (perhaps) a little better by strangers, the things that cause us the most pain as human beings would remain unchanged. If you do not like yourself “ugly”, you will not like yourself when you are “attractive” – indeed, you will probably keep moving the goalposts out, demanding more and more conformity to the ideal before you believe you can be happy. If you don’t feel worthy now, it won’t help you achieve lasting self worth if everyone on earth woke up tomorrow in agreement that you were the new social beauty ideal. Yes, it would probably be exciting and fun. But ultimately it’s not something that can radically alter who you are. Who you are is more about you than about other people. The bottom line is that if your life is not fulfilling you now it will not fulfill you when you look like a movie star.

As far as I know, based on my experience, the only way to like yourself is to put in the hard emotional and psychological work of dismantling the cultural and personal psychological bullshit that tells you you’re not worth anything. In my experience, you can get rid of those awful thoughts and feelings – not all the time, but much of the time. And you can go from being absolutely obsessed with attaining conventional attractiveness to being able to build a core of self worth completely free from it, a core that can survive almost anything. (I know. I did it.)

But you don’t do it by being conventionally beautiful. That’s an external quality that changes based on the whims of those around you, and that’s not the horse you want to back. People who buy into the idea that being conventionally hot can protect them from pain, from rejection, from fear and loss are taking a gamble with extremely bad odds. The wealth of human experience strongly suggests that nothing can protect you from that. That is the human condition, and conventional hotness is nothing but one more Faustian bargain.

The Princess Bride, whatever its faults as a movie, got this right: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” This doesn’t just apply literally, and in this case, I’m not just talking about the industries that make money from beauty products. I’m talking about a culture that gets you to do things by promising you happiness and self worth. This is really no different – in fact, it might even be more insidious. Don’t let your culture sell you the idea that if you can just conform hard enough, you’ll be happy. Your culture is not just asking for your money when it makes you this offer. It is asking for your life.


Intersectionality Power: The Recognition

Disclaimer: I’ve been following the Good Men Project for a few months now, and have really enjoyed the website, agree with its premise, and have been surprised by the number of quality and nuanced articles on there.

BUT. All good allies will sometimes fuck up, and I was completely dismayed by the publication of this article about “feminine power”.

As a queer person who identifies neither as femme or butch, I’m wary of anyone trying to pin down the definitions of what is “feminine” and “masculine” without writing or linking to a ten thousand word thesis about it beforehand. Furthermore, the construction of feminine/masculine will differ according to culture; for example, femme/butch identities were historically developed from Western society and culture, and may have less relevance in non-Western cultures.

Enter white male author, Brandon Ferdig, who I am sure has all the greatest intentions in the world. In fact his post is oozing with good intentions to present “feminine” power equal that of “masculine” power. Sadly he has to resort to racist tropes in order to make his point.

The emasculation of Asian men in Western media is so common and well-documented that Wikipedia even has section about it. In short, the fear of Yellow Peril caused Western men to perceive Asian men as sexual threats to white women (yes, I know how fucked up that sentence is), and over time this has warped from a hypersexualised image of Asian male sexuality to a stereotype devoid of any sexuality. I’ve read and heard a lot of whitesplaining about how Asian men are more “feminine” and “delicate” and the following quote is no exception:

Expectantly, it was the men who stuck out when femininity is stronger—especially when compared with the masculine men of America. In China, many men carry themselves with a more delicate walk, prettied hair, and some sport lengthy, manicured fingernails. Fisherman and other figures of masculinity commonly pull their shirts up over their midriffs.

To add insult to injury, Ferdig captions two photos of Chinese men and women holding hands as “probably not lesbians” and “probably not gay”, completely ignorant of the deep-seated homophobia that exists in mainstream Chinese society.

Let’s break this down:

While I’m currently living in Australia, I come from a Chinese background and have travelled to China at least 8-9 times over the last twenty years. Never have I seen this “delicate walk”, “prettied hair” and “manicured fingernails” phenomenon. What I have seen is an overall trend towards accepting men who care about self-grooming and appearances – but that’s the same walking among the white hipster dudes of Fitzroy in Melbourne as it is in the streets of Shanghai.

I can’t help but feel Ferdig has internalised a lot of Hollywood tropes about Asian people and just experienced confirmation bias while he was in China. He has been brought up in a society where white male faces are the norm, so maybe he’s used to equating prominent brows to masculinity, I don’t know. I don’t see anything particularly feminine about the photo of the young chinese boys he posted. Would he describe Panic! At the Disco as “feminine” for having similar hairstyles and *gasp* wearing eyeliner and makeup? Does that mean that Western society is becoming more accepting of feminine power?

In anything, traditional gender roles and expressions are even more strict in China. I don’t know if this causes the so-called increase in “feminine power” Ferdig describes, but anything outside the heterosexual nuclear family retains a scandal like no other because perspective is not one of the individual making their own choices, but that of letting the whole family unit down. Gay? Childless? Confucius is rolling in his grave right now. If you’re holding hands or touching a member of the same gender it’s probably because most people don’t conceive of queer identities in the open.

And:

After the first beat of the first song, I knew this was far beyond the gender-neutral territory of yoga and over to the land of the Lifetime Channel. The music was slow, light, and passionate; the dance moves were smooth and methodic: light touches, limp wrists, and weightless limbs.

It was so feminine.

Excuse me while I barf. I have a bunch of friends that are femme or that I’d describe as feminine, but “Lifetime Channel” is probably not the phrase I would use for them. Ferdig seems to equate the idea of the feminine with aspects of antiquated “female virtues” of patience and nurturing and I don’t know, raising children or something. Which is not to say that feminine people can’t be those things, but to break traditional gender paradigms we need to start viewing femininity as capable of being “fierce”, “strong” and “active” as well. I’m not 100% sure what sort of “power” he’s talking about in the context of the article (social power? expressive power?) but I’m pretty sure that using a nineteenth century wallflower definition of “feminine” isn’t helping anyone here.

Look, I’m glad this dude seems to really want to appreciate feminine people in his life, I really do, but what was the point of this article except to present China as some sort of haven for femininity. Which it definitely is not. Chinese politics and business is as much dominated by competition and adversary as it is in the West. Sexism still very much exists and therefore the devaluation of “feminine” still exists (although of course woman doesn’t always equal feminine). And most importantly, racism still exists and this article is a prime example of how to fail at intersectionality and ignorantly support some pretty racist Asian stereotyping.

From the same website, compare with Tom Hargrave’s post on masculinity which is one of the most nuanced explorations of masculinity in the patriarchy I’ve ever read.