Gender Identity Isn’t a Box. It’s a Yardstick.

One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:

What, exactly, is gender identity?

If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”

That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.

Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter their own deeply-held internal perceptions of someone’s sex in order to accommodate a trans individual’s deeply-held internal sense of their own gender.

There is more to gender identity.

Among radical feminists, gender identity is discussed differently. The far-and-away most common metaphor for gender identity in radical feminism is an enclosure, or box. Sometimes, more highly-charged language — cage, or prison — is used instead.

In this view, “gender identity” is essentially synonymous with “gender role.” While culturally-dependent, in the view of the radical feminist, gender exists to constrain the behaviors of the sexes in order to more deeply entrench patriarchal systems of power. In this view, a trans-identifying person is attempting to hop from one cage to another.

Transgender believers argue that this view of gender identity as a box makes little sense given the empirical reality of transgender people, many of whom exhibit characteristics that have more in common with the stereotypes intended for their biological sex than the stereotypes of their chosen gender identity.

What, says the transgender believer, of the trans programmer, born male, who identifies as female but still keeps practicing martial arts? Or the knitter and baker who now identifies as a male but was born female? Surely, these would be people whose original “box” would fit them more comfortably, and the “cage” they’ve hopped to would seem more confining, so why would they do it?

The box as a metaphor also makes less sense as a full explanation of gender identity in a western, liberal democracy where women’s written legal rights are near-identical to men’s. For the most part, men and women are allowed to engage in behaviors strongly associated with the other sex, to whatever degree is physically possible (cue the Monty Python “Loretta” gag). Women may be discouraged from entering STEM fields and banking, for instance, but they’re not legally disallowed. Wearing lipstick does not make males the target of police raids. Cage-hopping is not, strictly speaking, a requirement for someone hoping to engage in opposite-sex stereotyped behavior.

Indeed, in countries where legal rights for men and women are significantly different, transgender populations tend to be strongly oriented toward “fitting into a box,” making the radical feminist metaphor more salient. If you are in Iran and the only way to legally have sex with a man or wear a dress is to be in the “woman” category, then the notion of cage-hopping makes sense. In these places, the metaphor of the box or cage can come close to fully explaining the transgender phenomenon, and the vast majority of transgender people where this holds true strongly associate with culturally-typical opposite-sex roles.

To me, the competing definitions of the transgender believers and the radical feminists have seemed orthogonal, an example of two groups talking past one another while the uncommitted look on in confusion. I don’t think either is a full depiction of what “gender identity” is supposed to encapsulate, both connotatively in conversation with modern trans activists and denotatively in law.

A more illuminating object to metaphorically represent gender identity can be found in a yardstick.

In this view, men and women are measured according to two distinct sets of standards. A person who is meticulously groomed and uses a range of makeup products “measures up” very well according to the yardstick marked “woman,” but would be assigned low marks on the “man” yardstick. A person who dates women and wears trousers, never skirts/dresses, measures as bog-standard on the “man” yardstick, but would not achieve the same average measurement on the “woman” stick.

When examined this way, the distinction between “gender identity” and “gender roles” becomes more cleargender identity is the selection of one’s yardstick, while gender roles are the markings on the yardstick that you measure yourself against. With this idea in place, respecting another person’s gender identity means measuring them according to the yardstick they prefer.

In the law, “gender identity” then becomes measuring people according to their preferred yardstick. If women must wear skirts for their job, a male-bodied person may then wear a skirt as long as he has requested measurement on the “woman” yardstick. An insistence on measuring a person according to the yardstick corresponding to the stereotypes of their sex, rather than their identity, is perceived as invalidating and harassing.

Unlike the metaphor of the box, the yardstick can help us understand the “butch trans woman” who engages in many masculine-stereotyped behaviors, or the “soft trans boi” who inhabits a female body and consciously attempts to exhibit femininity while asking to be referred to by male pronouns.

In a capitalist culture that generates continuously-evolving countercultures and promotes self-discovery and uniqueness — a culture in which “basic” is an insult — the person who transitions even though their original “box” was a better fit is doing so in order to be measured as unusual on a new yardstick. If you’re a person who likes video games, does computer programming for a living, and watches a lot of pornography, your place on the “man” yardstick positions you as not terribly unusual, and not terribly desirable. But on the “woman” yardstick, measured from the perspective of their own male gaze (“why, I’d love to meet a woman who liked video games, porn, and programming!”), they become an unusual, desirable nerdy girl.*

The gender identity yardstick also helps to make sense of the range of non-binary gender identities: people identifying as “non-binary” and “genderqueer” want a new yardstick built just for people who want to be judged by different criteria. “Agender” people don’t think any yardstick fits them. “Bigender” and “genderfluid” people want to be judged according to the yardstick that currently best suits the way they’d like to be perceived.

Radical feminists have long wondered why transgender people and their allies seem to believe that the radical feminist position is “everyone should act according to sex stereotypes.” But using the metaphor of the yardstick, the nature of the communication breakdown is revealed: the fundamental tenet of mainstream transgender ideology is that human beings should feel free to pick whichever yardstick they prefer. If you take this view, it’s easy to see radical feminists as saying “no, you’re stuck with the yardstick we’ve been measuring you against since you were born. No hopping to another one. We’re always going to measure you according to the stereotyped standards we apply based on your genitals at the time when you’re born.”

Radical feminists are flummoxed by this view of their beliefs on the part of trans believers, because it presupposes the need for sex-based yardsticks in the first place — and even presupposes that the desire to be measured by one or the other is inherent to human beings, perhaps more inherent than their own organs of generation.

But the radical feminist position is not that people should get back to the yardstick where they belong. In radical feminism, the entire idea of gauging human personality differently according to sex is a symptom of sexism and patriarchy, not an inherent human desire.

The result of this position is that the radical feminist solution to the gender yardstick problem is not to make any yardstick available to anyone, free of charge.

It’s to throw the sticks on a bonfire.


*  – The persistent presence of narcissistic, sex stereotype-conforming heterosexuals in transgender circles becomes easy to understand as well. For the narcissist (as well as for Narcissus in the original myth), the ideal mate is simply a reflection of the self. By identifying with an opposite-sex “gender identity,” the narcissist is, in essence, making a demand for others to treat them as their own idealized mate.


Misogynist stereotyping in history, Part I: Those prudish Victorian women

Stereotypes of the “wrong” kind of woman to be are a powerful tool for enforcing expected social norms on female behavior.

If you’re talking to anyone on the left, the “wrong” kind of woman can be summed up as something looking a bit like this:

The Victorian woman, in the view of the modern left, represents everything a woman ought not to be.

Decorative and demure, she defers to her husband due to a lack of understanding of difficult or complex matters. She eats little, and maintains a snow-white complexion by staying indoors at all time. She stands staunchly against the suffragettes in her restrictive clothing, mocking the “bloomers” of her more forward-thinking peers.

The Victorian woman, in the popular imagination, is a creature of hysterical fits and feminine complaints. She is unable to discuss difficult realities even with her closest friends and confidants, because she has been kept so isolated from the world that even the mysteries of her own body are beyond her.

This lack of education, of course, results in the characteristic most despised in the Victorian woman stereotype: her famed prudishness.

Her restrictive corset acts, in our understanding of this woman, as a physical expression of a completely internalized, repressed sexuality (that yearned to breathe free). Her contorted spine mirrors what we believe to be a stunted form of development, free of expression of desire.

Indeed, the prudishness of the Victorian woman is even supposed to reflect on modern political struggles: she is invoked as a grim-faced, disapproving specter of the past, whose ignorance of anatomy (and unpredictable attacks of the vapors) necessitated separate toileting and changing facilities for men and women. In the view of the modern left, desegregating the sexes is merely rectifying the wrong committed in the name of these prim, fragile ladies of leisure.

That was her stereotype. This is an attempt to find something closer to her truth.

First (and I would think this would be self-evident, but you wouldn’t know it from the popular perception of “the Victorians”), the vast majority of women didn’t live that way.

There were no silk skirts sashaying from wallpapered room to room for the overwhelming majority of non-white women in the West (or anywhere else, for that matter). Even the huge majority of white women spent their lives working. Some worked in factories, while others worked at home, both on the incredible amount of labor required to maintain a household at that time, and with various types of piecework that gave them the “pin money” necessary to participate in commerce.

But let us say that we are speaking, in the stereotype, only of the middle- and upper-class women who were the expected consumers of millinery, yellow wallpaper, and the like.

What of these women?

Well, let us start by asking, what of these women:


See the horsehair buttons, the S-shaped corsets, the humorless faces, the frilly decorations surrounding a bake sale. Here, we have truly reached the apex of retiring Victorian femininity.

Except for one thing: they were selling sweets … as a fundraiser for women’s suffrage. The women fighting for women’s right to vote didn’t just wear unrestrictive dresses and bloomers. They did what many oppressed people from many civil rights struggles have done: they wore what they were expected to wear, in hopes of not having their concerns dismissed.

As for those campaigners for separate facilities for men and women, they weren’t arguing from a position of a previous utopia where women were allowed access to unisex facilities. Rather, they were arguing in favor of the basic inclusion of women in full public life: until these facilities existed, women simply did not leave the home for long enough to require restroom facilities, unless she had a carriage in which to relieve herself.

These facilities offered women an unprecedented ability to engage in public … which directly resulted in the ability of suffragists to organize the first women’s movement.

<p>Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressing members of the Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1916. <em>Photo by Getty </em></p>

The stuffy, straitlaced Victorian matron pictured above (center, in black lace) is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, visionary feminist writer. In addition to granting a unique first-person perspective on her psychological victimization by Victorian “hysteria cures” in her most famous work, The Yellow Wallpaper, she also wrote feminist utopian fiction that is still relevant today.

It is impossible to tell from a photograph of a buttoned-up Victorian woman whether she was in favor of suffrage or women’s rights.

And what of that famous repression?

It is impossible to understand Victorian women’s attitudes toward sex without a comprehension that in the Victorian era, sex was more dangerous than it had ever been, especially for the exact women most famed for their prudishness.

Childbirth was the leading cause of adult female death in the Victorian era, a situation that was significantly worse than in previous centuries.

Deprived of sun exposure in order to keep her skin pale (or, in the lower classes, due to the recent invention of factory work that trapped them indoors 12+ hours a day), the Victorian woman suffered from rickets more than women of previous or subsequent generations. Rickets impacted the bones most profoundly, creating pelvic outlets that were sometimes no wider than a silver dollar.

With bodies twisted by daily wear of restrictive garments, the Victorian woman faced pregnancies that were difficult to maintain. Social mores of the time dictated that visibly pregnant women were to be kept at home, in “confinement.” Deprived of exercise and outdoor activity during pregnancy, the worst was yet to come.

The photograph above depicts the aftermath of the most dangerous killer of Victorian women: “puerperal fever,” or childbed fever. Caused by a lack of obstetric hygiene (doctors routinely practiced on multiple pregnant women without handwashing, even after they had just handled a corpse), this fever claimed the lives of up to 1/3 of birthing women at leading obstetric hospitals in the late 19th century. Larger, more crowded hospitals caused this sickness to rise in incidence throughout the 19th century, and it would not be fully eradicated until the emergence of antibiotics.

Obstetric hemorrhage was another major concern, and most physicians of the time were inadequate to solve this common complication. While some midwives had remedies that helped a number of women, these remedies were typically dismissed in more professional medical contexts, which led to higher mortality rates in hospitals than at home.

The use of anesthetics during labor was pioneered on the ultimate Victorian woman, Queen Victoria herself. However, these anesthetics required more forceps deliveries, which represented a significant danger to both mother and child.

For women hoping to prevent or abort an unwanted pregnancy, the options were far from ideal. Cleaning fluids were advised as contraceptive douches, but the manufacturers had to cloak their advertisements in benign language to avoid trouble from the authorities.

Image result for 19th century abortion

Abortions, conducted secretly with caustic substances (typically said to “restore female regularity”) or foreign objects, resulted in hemorrhage, infection, and death at rates that gave birth a run for its money. What an irony, then, that the women accused of having so little knowledge of their own bodies and sexuality were so intimately familiar with sexually invasive methods of contraception and abortion — but no one ever thinks of the contradiction of the women who supposedly don’t know about vaginas and cervixes nevertheless managing to douche with Lysol, or insert a foreign object with which to open their own cervical os.

Abstinence, of course, is a full pregnancy preventative, but no woman in the world could claim in Victorian times that she had been “maritally raped.” The concept did not yet exist, and men’s legal rights to a woman’s body and sexuality in the context of the marital relationship were nearly boundless.

In fact, the husband’s rights extended to complete ownership and custody of all children born from the relationship. If he chose to separate from his wife, he had every right to take the children and leave her financially ruined. Of course, he could also simply leave the children with her and vanish, with no child support enforcement, which typically led women to turn to prostitution or factory work to make ends meet.

This is the context of Victorian female sexuality. From conception to postpartum, and even beyond, the Victorian woman’s life is positively ruled by sexuality and its results. Sex was the most dangerous activity engaged in by Victorian women, and it showed in the attitudes of women of that time.

These were the real fears of Victorian women. Childbirth-related mortality touched everyone, from every class. Before they birthed, every woman had known women who hadn’t made it through the process. Terror kept pregnant Victorian women awake at night, writing letters to relatives they worried they would never see again as they faced their “travail” of childbirth.

But all this is largely ignored today. The Victorian woman is a target of mockery and derision for her unwillingness to act playful and coquettish about sexuality — for refusing, in other words, to act like sex was no big deal, although even a single act of intercourse could foreseeably lead to her death.

We have much evidence that Victorian women were concerned about sex: with how to stop men from wanting it so frequently, with how to avoid it in their own personal lives, and with minimizing the negative impacts of male sexuality on female lives. Many first-wave feminists opposed legal abortion because they saw it as giving males free rein to have sex with their wives, even when they did not want children — without the right to refuse sex in marriage, abortion gave husbands the right to endanger their wives’ lives and health as frequently as they liked, without fear of personal repercussions.

What there is much less evidence for, is the notion that women of Victorian times were particularly repressed, which is to say, the fanciful notion that there was a boiling undercurrent of red-hot sexuality simply waiting to bubble up under the surface of each tight-laced corset, rendering women psychologically confused and making them ill with somatoform disorders.

Our notion of the secretly-sultry Victorian comes from male writers like D.H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley became an oft-censored symbol of Victorian hypocrisy and passion. It was men writing the florid tales of female desire, in an era when women (who had recently begun to enter institutions of higher education at higher rates than ever before in history) wrote female characters whose motivations were not primarily sexual. Even relatively sexually-charged Victorian content written by women, like the work of Mary MacLane, speaks to a focus on romance and companionship over raw sexual intimacy.

Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because men in Europe and the United States had, for centuries, claimed (without much evidence) that women were the sexually rapacious sex, that women’s sexuality was constantly highly charged, and that women constantly engaged in acts of “luring” men into immorality. Classic authors like Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare engaged with this idea in some of the works of classical literature that would have been consumed by any male writer of Victorian times.

The notion that women might not want sex all the time was a very radical one, and a very feminist one, for the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lack of marital rape laws in previous centuries, and the punishment of rape victims instead of rapists, was a direct result of believing that women were always — always — in a state of sexual desire. Women who acted like they did not want sex were thought to be engaged in a bit of play-acting to preserve a socially-acceptable veneer of modesty.

This idea was carried through into masculine literature of the Victorian era. When women started simply saying “no” more often — “no” to getting married, “no” to letting men cast all the votes, “no” to bearing children in an era where the odds of survival were no better than Russian roulette — male writers simply refused to accept that they meant it.

By way of explanation, they concocted Lady Chatterley, and all the other stereotypes of Victorian female eroticism that threatened to burst through whalebone and silk. They created a woman whose “no” was simply a social nicety, whose secret desires overrode her stated ones.

The stereotyping of the Victorian woman, then, is patriarchy whistling the same jaunty tune as ever: Women’s fears are unfounded “prudery,” and women’s “no” is a result of deeply-hidden secret desire — which carries a mysterious, erotic charge.

It’s time to stop looking at the Victorian woman from the gaze of the men who confined her, raped her, shamed her, kept her a non-voter and an invalid imprisoned in her home. They deserve much better from feminists than to be used as an example of “prudes,” rather than one of the first generations of women to feel strong enough to say “no.”

On Sex, Ribbons, and Why Cows Still Aren’t Bulls

Whether you are new to the world of feminism or not, you have probably heard one of these arguments in favor of accepting identity-based sex/gender* definitions:

  • Sex is a spectrum, not a binary
  • There are people with chromosomes that don’t match their outward physical appearance
  • There exists a huge range of intersex conditions, challenging the very idea of what we consider “male” or “female”

Typically, the person arguing in favor of identity-based definitions then begins to list the intersex conditions they know about, and asks “what about them, are you going to tell them they’re not real women?

I see a number of feminists get flustered by these claims and feel like they don’t know how to respond. I believe it’s because this is an example of something I like to call argumentum ad patriarchum — not because it’s being used to support the patriarchy (though, of course, in this case it is), but because it’s how my father argues when he knows he’s on the back foot and will otherwise lose badly.

In this kind of argument, the opponent has, with a new claim, changed the terms of what they are arguing so boldly that even if their new claim is totally supported, it in no way justifies the original argument.  The point of such an argument being used is simply to get you to a point where you agree they are right about something, and then they can crow and say, “so you do agree, after all, I’m glad we can see things eye to eye about [primary issue that agreeing to the secondary proposition never actually impacted].”

Yes, a huge range of intersex conditions exist.  You could be a person with ambiguous genitalia caused by CAH, or an XY person who appeared female due to CAIS.  You could be a person whose sex hormones are thrown out of whack and have some secondary sex features of the opposite sex.

But these sex is a spectrum arguments are sophistry. They are a word game.

The way you can tell is simple. The person making these arguments doesn’t follow it up with, “I’ve got XY chromosomes and CAIS, and I don’t want you to tell me that I can’t identify as a woman.”

Their next move is always to say that if you accept the existence of intersex conditions and sex as a spectrum, you must be willing to accept that identity should now be the defining element that determines all humans’ location on that spectrum.

All the science, all the specific conditions mentioned … it’s the misdirection used by a magician — or a conman. Because these arguments always lead up to “identity,” and intersex conditions are conditions existing in material reality.

Let’s take, by way of example, something we all accept is a spectrum already: visible light.


The wavelength of visible light, as you can see, goes from about 350-800 nanometers.

Blue light and red light exist toward the ends of this spectrum, and there is a dramatic range of colors in between. Unlike in the “sex spectrum,” in fact, the middle range of the visible light spectrum contains the majority of categories distinguished by the human eye.

And yet, discoveries of new colors within that spectrum — or the fuzzy boundaries between what we, for instance, perceive as red versus orange — do not mean that yellow is whatever someone identifies as yellow (or believes is yellow with all their heart).  Yellow is a color category that exists in the upper 500 nanometer wavelength range.  You could readily claim that something at 600 nanometers was yellow, or at least yellow-ish, and have a reasonable argument.  But you could not do the same for light with a wavelength of 450 nanometers.

Let’s say that at birth, you were assigned a ribbon you needed to wear in your hair at all times.  These ribbons were red (colors with wavelengths of about 650 nm and up) and blue (450 nm and below). For their whole lives, red and blue ribbon-getters were treated quite differently from one another: red ribbon-getters were a lower social order, expected to primarily serve the needs of the people with a blue ribbon.

Once in a blue moon, though, the dyeing machine had an error during the dye process, and yellow, orange, or green ribbons were produced instead. Tradition dictated they had to be used. For centuries, any children who got a yellow, orange, or green ribbon were simply told they’d received a red or blue ribbon, and when they pointed out any differences between their ribbon and the ones that were actually red or blue, an adult hushed them and told them they were wrong. Since ribbons are very important in their society, they grow up with a deep internal sense of shame over their differences.

The people with orange, yellow, and green ribbons start to complain and band together: shouldn’t they be acknowledged as they are?

At some point, the people with blue ribbons get it into their heads that this is a very fun idea, indeed: in fact, if someone with an orange ribbon — which we used to pretend was red, for the sake of outmoded social norms — can now say “My ribbon is orange, not red!”, why can’t their ribbon be whatever color they identify it as, too?

In fact, they take a good long look at their blue ribbon.  Sure, they say, its surface reflects light at a wavelength of 480 nm.  But they know tons of blue-ribboned people whose ribbons are of even shorter wavelengths: their friend Bill’s ribbon is a very deep blue, almost violet, and all the blue-ribbon people they see in the media seem to have deeper blue ribbons than theirs.

Since ribbon color is no longer falsely regarded a binary, now, they’re ready to make the claim: their ribbon isn’t really blue at all. It’s orange, or maybe actually red.  Maybe it’s always been red, and you just didn’t see it.  If we’re to accept that the orange-ribboned person doesn’t have a red ribbon, after all, we must also accept that a blue-ribboned person can, if they want to.

The reason, of course, comes into sharp contrast: the person with the orange ribbon isn’t in any way denying reality.  If that person identified as an orange ribbon-haver, they’re being specific and having pride in their differences. If they identified as a red ribbon-haver, because they’d been treated like a red ribbon-haver since the day they were born and they didn’t want to deal with being singled out as having an orange ribbon, that would also seem reasonable.

But nothing about the quest of people with green, orange, and yellow ribbons would mean that a person with a light blue ribbon actually had one that was yellow, or orange, or red. It’d be reality-denying and insulting to the intelligence of others for a person with a blue ribbon to insist everyone pretend his ribbon had always been red.

In a more reality-based context, some sheep being born with ambiguous genitalia and infertility issues doesn’t mean a ram can suddenly be a ewe upon request.

Sex spectrum arguments are irrelevant to the idea of identity-based sex and gender definitions. They are a deliberate time-wasting tactic engaged in by mansplainers, who jump in with an “Aaaaactually…” and then use this red herring to confuse the argument and claim victory.

Bookmark this post — and the next time you hear someone making this argument, send them this way.


* – Now that MTFs consider themselves “adult human females,” and of the female sex, they have again neatly collapsed the two into a single category for the purpose of definition, which has proven disastrous for sex protections in, for instance, provisions of the UK’s newly proposed GRA, as well as for single-sex accommodations in sports and facilities.

Back. Mean, Nasty, Disrespectful … and Back.

It’s been a while.

In that time, the little movement of feminists I became part of has become a force to be reckoned with.

And, of course, the trans lobby has become a massively funded, takes-no-prisoners sort of effort that showcases men at their most controlling.

Just today, I have seen men on the left refer to feminists as in league with Nazis (seems like there’s a misogynist portmanteau they’re just itching to use!) for having the audacity to claim that women don’t have penises.

I have seen women called every name imaginable for expressing this opinion.  I have seen them lose their jobs.  I have seen them excluded from social life.

I have seen women who, heartbreakingly, need to live a double life to be able to keep their jobs at “LGBTQ” charities, so that they can still work for gay and lesbian people.  They have to present about the “Genderbread person” with a smile, even while having been harassed in women’s-only spaces by males who are trans-identified.

I have not been quiet because I changed my mind.

I believe it is time to write once more.

To be different from other girls: on misogyny, inside and out

I am not like other girls.

Perhaps you are here because you are not, either.  Some variation on the words “I’m different from normal girls” is one of the top reasons people come to this website from searching online.

*     *     *

I am different from other girls.  For years, in my teens and early twenties, I said and believed this.  Now that I am older, and have met more people–particularly more people from many ages and walks of life–I realize what was really happening.  Believing myself to be different from other girls was the first step toward internalizing and then externalizing misogyny that took years to purge from my system.

The process by which woman is turned against woman is seductive, elegant.  Would you like to know more?

*     *     *

I’m not like other women.  You begin by telling this lie that feels like a truth to a thousand people–some women, yes, but mostly men.  Of course, this does not stop people from treating you, frustratingly, “like a woman.”  Men talking over you–bringing up an idea you’d just articulated and crediting it to the man who spoke it second–being relegated to second-class status in relationships–these were the things you wanted desperately to escape.  The pink-patterned walls of femininity, the interests confined to the superficial and the domestic, looked like a prison to you.

Of course, just declaring oneself to be different was not enough.  Even having genuine, longstanding interests dominated by men was not enough.  There was always a new shibboleth, a new way that men could decide you were a garbage person after all.  And “garbage person” meant woman, first and foremost–whether you hung out with the jocks who liked their garbage people on the sidelines at the game, or the nerds who liked their garbage people on the sidelines watching them play video games.

*     *     *

I’m not a typical woman.  I’m more like “one of the boys.”  In fact, other women bore me to death.  If you wanted to hear what was really going on, what was going on in the world of men, not the people forced to their periphery, you had to go undercover.

But men wouldn’t just believe you.  Did you think it would be that easy?  You’re going to have to say something about women when you join in with a group of men.  Something bad.  Something that doesn’t just separate you from them explicitly, but makes it clear that you don’t really think they’re worthy of attention, respect, or possibly full human status.

So you try out a few easy pieces of misogyny.  They don’t have to be sophisticated.  A cruise ship comedian’s material should do the trick.  After a few, something changes in the men’s faces. The relaxation of these groups, all at once, as if a signal has been given, will come to look after a few years like a sign as distinctive as the soft click of a key fitting into a lock.

You are in.

*     *     *

Women are such a pain in the ass.  Men start telling the stories soon after you start hanging out with the group.  Stories of misogyny, usually subtle at first.  You quickly learn that the men react best when you respond with a story about a woman in your own life who is “crazy” or “a bitch.”

You come prepared with these stories.  They are armor, proof that men can say whatever they want around you.  No censorship.  Nothing off-limits.

And as you wait long enough, they’ll start.

*     *     *

No, it’s okay, I can’t stand women, either, and I’m one of them!  It doesn’t take long to realize they don’t just want a place with no censorship.  They want to tell you the stories.

The stories of the worst acts men have done to women will start to come out if you express virulent enough misogyny in front of them.  Amy Schumer has used this phenomenon to great effect in her comedy show.  After this has happened to you several times, in several different groups, you will start to ask yourself why it is happening.  Then you will realize:

The “one of the guys” woman is there for one key purpose: absolving masculinity of its responsibility for misogyny.

They tell you these stories not because you are actually welcomed as equal to men in their group, but because you are a woman, and because they believe on some level that only a woman can tell them that their actions are not so bad after all.

*     *     *

I can’t stand other women.  Catty and superficial, every one.  You start to realize the role you are playing, and you start testing new responses, trying to see if you can undo the damage you now feel you’ve inflicted on yourself and other women.  You start to try rolling your eyes at the most sexist jokes, or clearing your throat and uncomfortably walking away when someone talks about that time they had sex with a developmentally disabled prostitute.

It only takes a few times before you’re called a bitch.  You used to be funny, the men tell you.  You used to be cool.  What’s up?  On your period?  Maybe one of those feminists got to you.  Don’t go all feminist on us.  Promise us you won’t go all feminist.

*     *     *

Bitches, am I right?  After a while, you know they’re misogynists.  You even realize you’re perpetuating it yourself, but you can’t stop.

You see, you’ve discovered something vital: When you act like a misogynist, men will behave at their true, underlying level of misogyny.  You will have, for instance, discovered several men of your acquaintance who have committed rape and justified it, and you will have guarded yourself against being in rooms alone with them afterward.  These are men who, had you only associated with them in groups considered “mixed company,” with girls who weren’t “one of the guys” there, you’d have thought were personable and normal.  Behind the man door, they view women as inhuman.

The information you get behind the scenes becomes important to judging these men as potential dangers.  One of the reasons rape and sexual assault survivors often engage in this kind of misogyny is as a way of filtering out the most dangerous men by allowing them room in which to discuss their actual levels of violence and woman-hatred rather than the level they deem socially appropriate in mixed-sex settings.

*     *     *

I’m not like most other girls.  But there is a way out.  It has to do with undoing the notion that you, unlike other women, have a full and complete inner life and a rational mind.

It has to do with realizing that every woman in the world is a human being, and that the trappings of femininity aren’t about women wanting to live in the pink prison–they’re about finding yourself in a prison, then told the only thing you’re allowed to do to make your stay more pleasant is decorate the bars.  After time, the decorations would inspire pride in their makers, as they’d spent time and energy on them, but they’d still be only aesthetic improvements on the very structure keeping you incarcerated.  Some might even help to prop up the prison as a structure.

Many–even most–women may be more invested in the trappings of femininity than you are.  But that doesn’t make you any less of a female, or less of a woman.

The way out of the pink prison isn’t to try to plan a solo midnight escape to the cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking land of blue that lies beyond.  If you travel that path, you will find yourself again in service to men–to the absolution of their misogyny, to servicing their egos.  Instead, you must try to find the other women who are dying to get out, band together with them, and kick against the prison walls until they fall down.

Keep in mind that the women who’ve devoted their lives to decorating the bars aren’t trying to work against you.  Many just didn’t know that kicking was an option.  Instead of fighting them, help them to find their legs.

*     *     *

I’m not like other girls.  But I am like other girls.  When it comes to the groups of women you once found alienating and hard to talk to, they may stay alienating and hard to talk to.  But you will find points of commonality, and you will find shared humanity.  The types and groups of women you once thought incomprehensible will begin to make sense to you, and you’ll begin to figure out new ways of identifying dangerous men (to start with, the ones who get angry when you call them out on misogyny).

Take the first step.  You’re like other girls, at least some other girls.  Some other women are like you, even if you’re a six-foot-two, or a heart surgeon, or annoyed as hell by women’s fashion.  Understand that separating yourself from the rest of women isn’t making a wider gender spectrum–it’s narrowing the definition of what “woman” means.

If you’re a female, you are like other women.  And that’s something that’s just fine to be.

Prevalence II: On Prison Placement

One of the issues on which trans activists and feminist activists most vehemently clash is that of transgender and transsexual prisoners.  According to trans activists, these prisoners must be housed according to self-declared gender identity as soon as possible.  In the past, when feminist activists have expressed alarm and outrage that prisoners born with penises would be allowed into spaces containing some of the most vulnerable women in society (2/3 of whom have not committed a crime of violence), they have been told that their alarm is misplaced.

Besides, only .3% of the population is trans, and even if a person occasionally abused the system, they’d be so far removed from one another, very unlikely to even be at the same prison, making any abuses easy to spot and hard to organize a coverup of.  The most powerful prison gangs, which can often shield particular members from scrutiny or serving additional time for jail mishaps, need a population of 3-4% of prisoners (total incarcerated men with gang affiliations are around 16% in prisons, less in jails).

Of course, like with so many arguments from the transgender activist side of the debate, this one is based on feelings, not rigor, logic, or mathematics.  Where are the skeptics?  Well, there is one here, and we will explore the math today together.  You see, the transgender prisoner issue is actually a pretty big one.  Bigger than you probably thought, even if you already knew it was a problem.

Allow me to clarify for a moment here.  All it takes is one raping man to be too many. There are already stories of men who have used self-castration and gender identity as a way to access and then sexually abuse women in the prison system.  What I aim to show, however, is that the problem of simply opening prisons to self-identification is a much bigger problem than it seems at first glance.

In order to quantify the likely number of males who would enter women’s prisons, we must examine two distinct groups: people with genuine histories of gender dysphoric thoughts (who we can assess the number of via transgender prevalence rates), and people with no genuine histories of transgender thoughts who desire to be placed with women (either for sexual access to women or due to safety threats in men’s prison).  We can call the first population A, the second B.

Let’s first take a look at population A.  Given studies that have shown the criminality of MTF individuals remains, on average, the same as males, let’s assume that they are represented proportionally in the prison population.

But wait.  Since 75-80% of transgender people are MTF, not FTM, we can assume the prevalence among males is more like .6%.  Still doesn’t seem like much … until you factor in something huge: the vast differential between the number of male and female prisoners.

Check out these statistics.  What we see is that while there are 1,225,900 male inmates total, there are only 89,000 female inmates–nearly 14 times as many men as women.  That same six-tenths of a percent of the male population that seems relatively insignificant represents a total number of 7,355 inmates.  Yes, that’s right.  Just six-tenths of a percent of male inmates self-identifying as transgender and opting into women’s prisons would represent an increase to the women’s prison population of over eight percent.  About three-quarters of these, assuming the prevalences stayed stable versus the rest of the population, would be male-born people who prefer women sexually.

Eight percent!  At that rate, overcrowding becomes a bigger problem than ever, making conditions cramped for female-born people for the benefit of male-born people.  And that’s, of course, before we consider population B.

Ah, population B.  The terrifying thing about you is that we don’t really know how many of you there are.  But we can take some interesting guesses.

Here are some things we know because of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  There are nearly twice as many males whose most serious conviction is murder (157,000) and males whose most serious conviction is rape (159,000) in state prison as there are total female prisoners incarcerated for any crime.  Once again, much as with the locker room issue, we must ask ourselves: how likely is it that one rapist in a hundred, one murderer in a hundred, would decide to use this strategy to gain access to women?

If one in a hundred of those rapists utilized this strategy, they’d constitute 1,570 people — or nearly two percent of the total number of female prisoners.  If one in a hundred murderers did the same, they’d constitute another two percent.

It does not take many men–men already proven to be violent, men already proven to have no respect for the boundaries of other human beings–to lie about gender identity to make prison a living hell for women.

Trans activists need to understand that for this to be an issue for women does not require “transphobia.”  This is a legitimate issue.  The class of people born female will experience a material detriment.  Admitting population A into women’s prisons, even if literally zero of those people had bad intentions, would cause significant overcrowding at the expense of female-born people for the comfort and benefit of male-born people.  Admitting population B into women’s prisons is unavoidable if population A is admitted.  Due to the vastly larger starting number of male inmates, population B could create an outsize presence in women’s prisons even if only a relative handful of the worst and most violent inmates used gender identity to leave male prison.

Feminists are often treated like we are being the irrational ones in these debates, like we do not understand science or mathematics.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If trans activists looked at the actual problem of prevalence, they’d understand exactly the issue women have with gender identity classifying prison inmates instead of sex.  Transwomen of my acquaintance (hello there, Aoife!) who do understand these issues and have taken an honest look at them would NEVER subject women prisoners to forced housing with male-born people.

On Footbinding; Or, the Privileges of Womanhood

For a woman in China in most of the second millenium C.E., the bound foot–in several different styles varying with time, but most enduringly the tiniest and most injurious “golden lotus” foot–was the price of entry to upper-class womanhood, and a possible ticket to social mobility for the lower classes.  With the exception of the Manchu, who forbade the practice, the idea spread and became more and more de rigeur for Chinese women to inflict on their daughters, typically in the name of ensuring better marriage matches.

A woman with unbound feet, by the 19th century, was unlikely to thrive in court society, or even to be a successful dancer or performer.  She had greater freedom to walk, yes, but society constrained her role to that of a servant, a laborer.  To leave a daughter’s feet unbound was perceived as an act not of mercy, but of short-sightedness, letting sentimentalism get in the way of practicality.

Half the women in China walked with great pain on lotus feet by 1800.  Thus, there were two groups, of about equal number: women with bound feet, and women with unbound feet.  The prevalence of footbinding among the upper class Han women approached 100 percent.

Because the practice did not die out until the Communist Revolution in China, first-person accounts of what it was like to have one’s toes crushed by the footbinding process are still coming out in interviews today.  In 1995, Pamela Cooper interviewed a Mrs. Huang, who told this story of her own binding:

I remember the day the footbinding began. My mother told me that I could not be beautiful if I did not have bound feet. Ugly girls couldn’t marry. The binding of my feet began when I was five years old. I hated it. I cried. It was so very, very painful. No matter how much I cried or begged, my mother never relented. If I loosened the bandages at night, my mother would beat me in the morning and bind the feet even tighter. So, what could I do? Nothing. So, my feet were bound. I remember the first time my mother unwrapped them. They were rotting. They smelled very bad and were full of pus.

At the same time, the women in Cooper’s first-person accounts are quick to reflect on the fact that in many ways, their status was changed for the better by the destruction and warping of their young metatarsals, the rotted toenails.

It hurt so badly, I cried, and there was nothing to do for the pain. If I didn’t bind my feet, I would have to go to work in the fields, and that would have been hard. So, footbinding was better than that.

Another woman reflects on the same labor bargain:

It was an honor to have bound feet. All you could do was sit all day and make bound feet shoes. Servants did everything for you.

The unbinding of feet in the twentieth century undid the labor bargain:

I was happy to unbind my feet. My husband was happy too because I could work more in the fields. Prior to the unbinding I stayed at home and sewed, cooked, took care of the children and did housework.

One of the things these first-person accounts have in common is that the women involved say very little discussion of the practice of footbinding ever occurred, except between mothers and daughters.  This deeply traumatic event, shared by millions of women, was considered so private that it was rarely, if ever, talked about–even with spouses or the most intimate friends.

But what if the women of China had begun to discuss the practice centuries ago?  Moreover–since we’re already in the land of hypotheticals–what if they had done so through the lens of “privilege” discourse?

Well, it would be easy for the women with unbound feet to conclude, from the narratives above, that women whose feet were bound experienced what could be described as “bound-foot privilege.”  After all, women with lotus feet did significantly less manual labor and were often waited upon by servants.  They secured better marriage matches.  They were elevated above the common woman.

However, the women with bound feet–who had little or no say in whether they were bound, and whose say would have meant nothing anyhow because they were little children when the process began–could as easily have discussed the privilege of being born with unbound feet.  To be able to walk free, to be able to leave one’s home or relationship by simply walking away, was beyond the woman with bound feet.  She was hobbled, forced to inhabit a tiny world close to home.  She was in pain when she walked even a short distance, and prone to all the ailments an enforced lack of exercise can lead to.

Which, then, of these groups could be said to be privileged over the other?

The answer should be immediately obvious, but if it is not:

Neither of them.

These groups of women are divided by a destructive beauty practice that was created to eroticize the female body while hobbling it, for the benefit not of other women, but of men.  Neither side of the divide enjoys privileges, because the divide was created by an outside oppressor group in order to create pressures on women of either footbinding status.

Would it have benefited either group–the bound, or the unbound–to call the other group “privileged” for their footbinding status?  Would fighting each other for who had it worst, whose plight was harder, be likely to improve their conditions?  Or would they have been better off trying to attack the root of the problem: a male culture that eroticized hobbled, deformed women, leaving them a choice between deformity and poverty?

*      *      *

So it goes with motherhood.  In recent weeks, some feminist discourse online has revolved around whether such a thing as “motherhood privilege” exists.  Some say yes, others say no, others say “NO” more vehemently, even claiming that if anything, there is privilege in not being a mother–lower domestic violence victimization rates and higher salaries, for instance.

This is footbinding privilege.  This is a failure to see the overarching system dividing and conquering.

Motherhood’s supposed “privileges,” as well as non-motherhood’s, are determined not by women, but by men.  What woman would devise the system in place now, wherein all the caretaking labor and time required to grow a human being into some semblance of self-sufficiency is considered outside of the economic sphere?  It is not the group of women who bear children who controls the fact that men often won’t consider a childfree partner for dating.  It is not the group of women who do not bear children who controls the fact that men commit more violence against mothers.

These groups of women are both oppressed by a common oppressor.  The “privilege” conferred by motherhood is similar to the “privilege” conferred by beauty: decided at the whim of men and easily taken away to suit other divisive political goals.  Black mothers, for instance, don’t get a lot of the sympathy and apple-pie Americana benefits a lot of feminists in these discussions associated with motherhood.  They often get side-eye and people looking really close at what they’re paying with when they go to the grocery store.  No matter what your race, one day, your features can be considered beautiful, but the next, standards change and your type isn’t “in” any more.  Aging out of the beauty pool is, as many women have noted, a mixed blessing–invisibility has both benefits and drawbacks when visibility is synonymous with harassment.

We did not make the world the way that it is.  But we must see it the way that it is, if we are to take it back.

There is only such a thing as motherhood privilege if there is such a thing as footbinding privilege–or, for that matter, female genital mutilation privilege (also a practice performed to secure economically advantageous marriages).  Women did not create these divides.  Women did not decide that mothers should make less, or that non-mothers should be viewed as less desirable or as “incomplete” women in any way.

This is how patriarchy works: by telling you that you really must do certain things to fit in, to be good enough, to be worthwhile, to gain the best benefits society has to offer.  But in order to do them, you must risk injury or even death.  Whether we’re talking about motherhood, footbinding, maintaining underweight physiques, or plastic surgery, risking lethality seems to be a necessary component for women to reap supposed “benefits” out of patriarchy.  You can have the finest crumbs from the master’s table, but only if you hurt yourself for his amusement first–and do so better than all the other women vying for the same few crumbs.

I implore my feminist friends: Stop fighting for scraps when the whole table stands above you.  Stop wielding privilege rhetoric against other women without asking the question: where is the oppression coming from, and who decided that your group of women should be treated in the way that they are? You’ll be surprised how rarely the answer to these questions is actually “other women in that other group.”

If the answer is “men,” don’t we have better things we could be doing?