Reflections on International Women’s Day 2019

I’m sitting in an Air BNB in Newcastle upon Tyne where we’ve been performing Odd Encounter all week – last show of the run here tonight.  It’s about sex, love and relationships, and in it I get to do a little rant at one point about how the personal is political, and therefore who you love and how you love them is something that matters.

And it is.  And if you want to read my thoughts about love and its meaning, head over to my blog at Love Off Script for more on that.

Today I’m also reflecting on being a feminist and an activist in 2019 and what that means to me, personally. And my focus, at the personal, community, social and cultural level has to be consent.

We live in a culture of entitlement, where unchecked privilege makes assumptions and acts on it. Calling out that privilege and entitlement entrenches the divisions between us – haves, have-nots and the allies of both zeroing in on our difference as otherness, and picking a side to fight from.  It’s International Women’s Day, and how many times today will someone ask ‘when’s Men’s Day, eh?’ (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is it’s November 19th).

I am so very tired of hearing people who call themselves feminist resorting to binary and biologically reductive arguments as the means to create social change.  The way we really create change has to be through building consent culture – calling in entitlement to build consensus. We need to celebrate our myriad differences and find ways to connect interpersonally and socially; to focus on what we have in common, rather than identifying difference as a point of opposition; to have difficult conversations with respectfulness and not leap to the conclusion that because we disagree we are polar opposites – there will always be a point of connection in there somewhere.

I got into a Facebook row this week with someone who was angry that I’d supported this excellent campaign by English Collective of Prostitutes calling for decriminalisation of sex work as a means to enable greater safety and worker rights for the 70,000 uk women who choose (consent) to receive payment for sexual services.  They came to the discussion armed with slogans – ‘you can’t buy consent’ (of course you can’t – but you can consent to sell sexual services) and ‘Nordic Model now’ (a model that has has driven sex work further underground and made life more dangerous for vulnerable women).  As I tried calmly to express my point of view and the evidence I’d read to back it up, I was accused of being glib about sex trafficking. I am not for one second dismissive about the international human rights abuses of sex trafficking – it’s an important issue, and it needs it’s own solutions. If Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation don’t conflate these issues, I sure as heck am not going to.  I explained my perspective patiently, and listened to theirs. I don’t know if I was heard, but I tried to avoid further polarising of views by at least attempting to hear them, and to focus on our shared concerns about women’s safety.

This morning, I’ve read a blog post from a cisgender gay man who insists that saying ‘trans women are women’ is ‘gender ideology’ and an erasure of gay and lesbian identities. He said that this ‘ideology’ requires all lesbians to have to start finding penises sexually attractive – and that if they did find themselves attracted to a woman with a penis then somehow they wouldn’t be proper lesbians any more.  Wow. Supporting people’s autonomous self-determination of their gender identity is not erasure.  Is it really so hard to see the parallels between that and supporting people’s rights to self determine their sexuality – love who they love?  Surely what glues together the alphabet soup of LGBTQ+ communities is a common ground of challenging the social norms that push people into heteronormative gender binaries.

Oh and, while we’re here, clearly the International Olympic Committee’s criteria for who can compete as a man or as a woman is working fine – there’s not one scrap of evidence in the years it’s been working fine to suggest that the criteria for allowing trans women to compete in women’s events puts other women at a disadvantage. This article from The Independent explains it much better than I ever could.  Pushing back against the current ‘gender revolution’ as Peter Tatchell called it  only serves to prop up the patriarchal norms of the past.  Instead, we could be working together, and championing the gender revolutionaries, as they blaze the trail towards a future where gender doesn’t limit our choices.

The problem that I have with feminist rhetoric that excludes trans women and shames sex workers is that it makes feminism about rescuing people with vaginas from a perceived threat posed by people with penises. This reductive predator versus prey paradigm underpins so many problematic and insidious beliefs, and it must be challenged. I’m not suggesting for one second that we haven’t constructed a binary imbalance, a power structure that puts men in power and makes women victims – we have. But that structure damages and limits people of all genders – and it’s not the natural order. And even if it was the natural order, we’re more than capable of behaving in ways that aren’t ‘natural’ – we’re not exactly hunter-gatherers these days!

I believe with all my heart that human beings are fundamentally social creatures that want to make connections and cooperate, to form constructive relationships and work through challenges, to build community, to look after one another. It’s time to stop turning on each other and blaming the person opposite for the mess we’re all in. It’s time to call people in rather than calling them out. It’s time to listen and be heard instead of shouting louder and louder ‘you’re wrong’.  On International Women’s Day I don’t want to even think about ‘what about the men’ – but to foster a sense that by championing equality and the rights of one group of people, we will make a better world for all.  I want to notice with delight how different and unique we all are and to look for the common ground where we can celebrate that together.

Jenny Wilson 8/3/19

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