How To Make Love With A Trans Person

Em Travis, after Gabe Moses

content note in the linked piece for v explicit sex, violent body imagery, surgery and needles and scars, mentions of illnesses, car-crash analogy mention, non-binary erasure, romonormativity and descriptions of hypothetical transphobia

content note in this poem for sex, violent body imagery, scars, imprisonment imagery to imply systemic cissexism/transphobia

As a trans person who has sex with trans people, I read this poem and loved a lot of what I read. The concept of challenging preconceptions about body parts and about what kinds of sex trans people will want to engage in, and the reassurance that it’s okay to fumble through and experience a shared discovery of new positive kinds of sex with your partner, is something I know resonates very deeply with many trans people.


I was compelled to write a response poem, to add to and reply to the original, because I felt there was more to say. I wanted to emphasise most strongly that trans people are not a monolith. Some of us have gone through aspects of physical transition; some have not yet; some are unable to; some have no wish to, and never will. Some of us experience constant physical dysphoria relating to our bodies or to parts of our bodies, and some of us never or rarely experience it at all. I wanted to elaborate with more representation of experiences outside of a binary trans narrative, using pronouns other than just he/him and she/her, including neopronouns that some people may not be very familiar with (disclaimer: no pronoun is inherently binary or non-binary).

My response is written with for a more explicitly cis readership than the original, which was very deliberate – firstly, because I wanted to underline the necessity for cis people who have sex with trans people to communicate with them individually about what they want and don’t want, rather than assuming that all trans people have sex in any kind of similar way; and secondly, because one thing that made me uncomfortable about the first piece was the focus on cis people “being okay” with trans people’s bodies, and helping their trans partners “be okay” with their own bodies, without recognising that, as members of an oppressive system, they must also hold some level of accountability for a certain amount of the impetus behind trans people feeling uncomfortable with our bodies in the first place.

(Also: this poem is written in a trans-specific context, but its message is by no means trans-specific. Detailed communication about sex, and explicit consent for specific things within sex, is always important, whether a partner is cis or trans or neither.)

—-

 

The first thing you must learn is to listen.
You will hear the world through new mouths,
words used in fresh ways, sentences that make
no sense to you. Listen until you understand.
This is how you learn who we are, and this
is how we know that when our words are
whispered breathless through trembling lips,
you will still be listening.

The second thing you must learn is to ask.
Do this always, from the moment you meet us,
because words can pile up like weights on our heads
and we are weary of not being given a choice.
Ask how you should form the words to tell faer
how the shape of faer lips and the steel in faer eyes
stop you from sleeping soundly some nights.
Let fae teach you the language of faer limbs.
Ask how ze wants you to say that ze is a land
that you ache to get lost in, hir hands hurricanes
you wish you could be devastated by.
Watch as ze shows you how to navigate hir body
and maps out the boundaries you may not cross.
Above all else, ask before you touch xem.
Ask before you taste xyr skin. Offer xem your hands,
and ask where xe wants them to find their home.
Xe may say everywhere. Xe may say nowhere.
Sometimes, xyr answer will change. That’s okay.
Both answers are the right one.

The third thing you must learn is to remember.
We may be fragile. We may shatter.
Remember not to treat us as though we are
bulletproof. Remember the scars we may bear –
those in plain sight, and those that are invisible.
The puckered lines carved out across eir chest,
and the tangle of swallowed thorns inside it.
Remember not to assume that the most painful
of war wounds are those that reshape skin.
When ey tells you that it was never just eir body
that imprisoned em, remember that you are lucky.
You were taught to be eir jailer. Some days,
ey may still hear the keys to eir cell jangle
in your pocket. Do not betray eir trust. Remember
how lucky you are to be trusted in the first place.

The fourth thing you must learn is to forget.
Forget what you were told your body was made for.
Unlearn everything you have ever been taught
and relearn it in shuddered gasps from vir lips –
not just once over, but again, again, again,
because it is not enough to adjust, not enough
to retune your tongue to a body that you see as
something other than the norm. Forget the word
normal. Forget that you ever thought you knew
how skin and muscle and nerves and chemicals
should bind two hundred bones together, and how
you expected virs to fit with your own.

The last thing you must learn is that we are different –
not just from you, but from each other. Ask. Listen.
Every answer will be different. Do not presume
to understand a body you do not inhabit,
an identity that has never been anything but
misunderstood. She may tell you she was born
in the wrong body, to treat her planes like curves
and her valleys like mountains. They may tell you
they were born in the wrong world, that their body
is boxed by language you must learn to translate.
He may say you are free to worship each part of him
with whatever name you choose to give to it.
Ne may say that you must never touch nir at all.
The last thing you must learn
is that you will never stop learning.

 

BREAKING: STRAIGHT ALLIES TRY TO STEAL GAY STRUGGLE

TW: holocaust mention, homophobia, transphobia, q slur, swearing

Jennifer Green

 sa1

[controversial? nah.]

 

Will Popplewell puts forward the argument in his article inspired by my status (see above) that we shouldn’t “alienate people… declaring rainbow profile pictures as something belonging to LGBT people” as this sets up an unnecessary division.

I necessarily disagree.

Rainbows and other LGBT symbols have represented gay people for years because of a division in society set up by straight people! I agree that it’s unnecessary. However, we have had to create our own underground culture, our own identifiers, our own secret societies because of discrimination. And it is not fair for the dictating class – straight people in this case – to decide they’ve DEIGNED to give us our rights (because rights are things we vote on and decide whether or not you can have, right?) so now they’re going to go around wearing rainbows. It’s appropriating a symbol that represents a struggle that you HAVE SIMPLY NOT BEEN THROUGH. You have NO NEED for this symbol. THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

 

“Surely if we’re asking for equality, that’s [setting up a division] a pretty counterproductive move.. We can’t say that ‘gay marriage’ is just ‘marriage’ but still retain whatever arbitrary symbols we think are cool.”

– Will Popplewell on the rainbow flag.

 

Woah. Woah. Woah. The rainbow flag is not an arbitrary symbol and its use is not simply because we think it’s cool. Woah. The pink and black triangles are not worn because it’s hip.

Throughout history symbols become representative of a movement, of a belief system and of a culture. They become steeped in history, in tradition. There’s a reason that it’s illegal in many countries to wear or display a swastika.  It’s because symbols have power. They aren’t arbitrary. They mean something.

And before I’m shouted down using Godwin’s Law – this is relevant. Popplewell jokes about gays being hunted down and locked up. The rainbow flag is a direct descendant of the pink and black triangles, the symbols gay men and women were forced to wear as they prepared to be slaughtered during the Holocaust.

They say a picture paints a thousand words – a symbol? How many?

Popplewell argues that straight allies rainbowing up is ‘a symbol of inclusion, not appropriation’ – but no. Straight allies aren’t magically included in LGBT just by wearing rainbow colours. That’s literally what appropriation means.

 

Appropriation (verb): The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission

 

And this really gets to the crux of the matter. Saying that straight allies are appropriating this symbol doesn’t necessarily mean saying “Hey you, you can’t ever wear a rainbow!” It’s calling a spade a spade. Wearing a rainbow in this instance is something you are doing FOR YOURSELF. A straight person changing their profile picture has been touted as an act of support. I disagree. I see it as an act of self congratulation, self-promotion – an ad campaign for the self. The rainbow pictures alone don’t benefit gay people, – if anything I found them confusing and alienating. Just after Pride, I saw my News Feed bursting with rainbows, a symbol of my comrades, my fellow queers fighting to show their identities in a world that so often forces us to hide them. I was ecstatic. “‘Wow, I had no idea that *name* was queer!’ ‘Wow, and *name*?! I’m so happy for them!’ ‘Wait – I know *name* isn’t queer… In fact, they’re often downright homophobic. What? What is going on?!’”

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 18.18.45

[yes this actually happened]

 

My status was not only an expression of frustration and possessiveness of a queer symbol, but an expression of the expectation that this ‘support’ from many straight people is only going to be temporary and in the specific, useless format that these people chose to adopt to engage with the LGBT movement. Many of the people changing their pictures are simply following a trend, and do not do enough in their own lives to warrant claiming allyship.

There will be a time, not too far from now, when the rainbow profile pictures will cease, when straight people will go back to their straight lives and as long as queer people ‘stay normal – as long as they get married and have a picket fence like us and aren’t DIFFERENT’, we will once again be allowed to exist. Tolerated. Heaven forbid we be trans, non-binary, polyamorous, black, bisexual, disabled, childless, women, fat, kinky, angry, butch, femme or unmarried.

Picture 6

[they’re not scary – they’re just like us]

 

We didn’t get our rights from ‘being ourselves’ or showing people we were “normal humans” or would “care for […] children”. Stonewall. The Compton’s Cafeteria. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The struggle is real and the struggle is ongoing. It took people, fighting tooth and nail – people who wore these symbols, our symbols with both power and Pride.

This symbol has power, yes. It’s a power that us queers have used for decades, and this new movement weakens and destablises it. Closeted queers with homophobic families and friends, watching helplessly as their straight counterparts flaunt their profile pictures in a way they can only ever dream of. Baby gays, terrified to have a tiny rainbow pin, a tiny symbol that They Might Not Be Straight – I’ve still not been brave enough to attend a Pride parade, 6 years after coming out to myself, and 5 months after coming out publicly – it gets lost, drowned out by this screaming, caterwauling of the straight ally happily covered head to toe in colours they have fought no battle to be wearing.

 

sa2

[wow they ar the best]

 

To be territorial means something. The OED defines it as ‘defending an area against intruders esp. of the same species’. It means standing up for something that belongs to you. The gay struggle belongs to gay people. Gay identity belongs to gay people. GAY ISSUES belong to GAY PEOPLE. I have no idea why Popplewell felt the need to put ‘gay issues’ in quote marks, like they don’t really belong to us any more. This is exactly what makes me so furious about this situation. Because it’s almost like they don’t.

Straight allies never had that personal struggle for recognition that we have – just because they were straight. The white cis ones always had their rights to marriage, no vote required. They got their relationships recognised in law and socially – they had examples of the kind of relationships they wanted to grow up and have shown and taught to them from birth. They have the world designed for their relationships. There are not countries they can’t live in or travel to for fear of getting imprisoned or killed for who they are and who they love. They get all this, and I’m happy for them.

But goddamnit, we get the rainbows.

 

sa3

[before it was cool]

———–

Further reading:

http://durham.tab.co.uk/2015/06/29/if-youre-straight-you-need-to-stop-using-rainbow-profile-pics/

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/ – NB. This article explains cultural appropriation with regards to race; while many of the points raised about appropriation are relevant and comparable to the gay struggle and queer appropriation, others are unique to the experiences and struggles of BME people.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/where-is-it-illegal-to-be-homosexual–and-which-is-the-most-deadly-country-to-be-gay-10355338.html

http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/everybody-wondering-if-its-okay-to-change-profile-back-now-2015063099730

https://prideagenda.org/news/2013-11-29-top-ten-ways-be-lgbt-ally

http://community.pflag.org/document.doc?id=139 – How to be an ally – PFLAG resource

—-

Jennifer Green is a queer, Jewish, disabled, neurodivergent, white, British, English-speaking, working/lower middle class activist living in Cambridge with their partner. They are both graciously permitted to share a living space with the Cat, Dexter. 

Doctrine

~ Helen Dallas

*Content note for abuse, victim blaming, denial of experiences*

Abuse is a doctrine, and it is collaborative. An abuser shapes it and teaches it, adjusts the lighting by which their victim sees the world, but that shape is maintained by the people external to a partner dynamic. Their doctrine lays out a perfect victim, tells you that a victim is certain things and an abuser is certain things. It does it all silently, and yet this doctrine holds immense power over a victim. One part of this belief system held onto by victims, abusers and onlookers alike, is that a victim must have passively accepted their abuse, that they themselves never did anything “bad”. But victims are panicked, victims do scream or cry or plead, victims do become jealous and frightened and beg not to be left alone. If someone slapped you whenever you displeased them and one day you hit them back, that would not make you an abuser too. With emotional abuse, though, for some reason, this seems harder to stomach.

An abuser can entirely undermine your self-worth and reconstruct you on their own terms. An abuser can isolate you from friends and family, perhaps blaming them for the problems you’re having – an abuser can look like your saviour when things align just so. An abuser can make you doubt your own judgements, make you hate yourself more than anything, even whilst they slip in kernels of praise amongst it all. Given all of that, given everything more that we all know an abuser can do, is a “bad” reaction from a victim really surprising?

So why does this make someone less of a victim? Why would knowing that an abuser was hurt by the reaction of their victim somehow shift the blame away from the abuser?

A response of “I didn’t abuse them; they abused me” is an uncomfortable situation, something that destabilises the falsely ordered system the abuse doctrine tries to create. Everyone questions facts, analyses behaviour. What can really sting, though, is the fact that this is exactly what most victims go through all the time. Because of the way an abuser can make themself the centre of their victim’s life, make the victim believe anything they say, make the victim hate themself rather than their abuser, the belief that they were the one in the wrong can be one of the hardest things to get free of. An abuser turning around and denying what happened, accusing their victim, is exactly what so many victims are afraid of, and this absurd doctrine of how abuse works makes it all too easy.

Abuse is about power. An abuser exerts power over their victim and enforces a change in the victim’s behaviour, mentality and wellbeing. If being abused makes the victim frightened and therefore the abuser spends a lot of time giving reassurance, that does not invert the dynamic. If the victim becomes jealous because the abuser has made them believe they are worthless, that does not invert the dynamic. If a victim shouts at the abuser because they are constantly shouted at themselves, backed into a corner and afraid, that does not invert the dynamic. It is so tragic that this needs pointing out, but the world likes to harm vulnerable people. If you ever question your victim status, or if anyone you care about ever does, ask yourself as objectively as you can where the balance of power lay, whether any “abusive” behaviours you exhibited would have happened without the stimulus of being abused yourself.

Every relationship is individual, and that means every relationship has its own power balance, not necessarily tied to the privilege each partner has (yes, men can be abused by women, it does happen, and the abuse doctrine makes it really hard for them to say so).

The doctrine is fundamentally wrong. It encourages people to deny experiences and to turn against victims. It creates an impossible template for an abuse victim, an unrealistically phantom-like template for an abuser, and hence allows real instances to be rejected. It encourages the victim’s actions to be examined to find something wrong with the way in which they took their abuse in order to invalidate their experiences, rather than acknowledging that it is not in most people’s natures to respond well to being torn apart emotionally by another person, and that what the abuser receives from a victim is by and large their own fault.

Someone’s experiences of abuse are likely to have shaped their identity, to whatever extent that may be. Denying these experiences is a rejection of identity. The fact that the abuser came away in a bad place too will never be enough to excuse something like that, whatever the fictional rule books says. But doctrine isn’t one single piece of legislation; it’s something formed by public opinion. And the more we discuss this, the more we’re able to engage with this sort of discussion, the more we can dismantle it and enable people’s experiences to be recognised.

Not My Comrades: on dealing with the SWP

– Martha PW

(content note for mentions of sexual violence, rape apology, misogyny)

The Socialist Workers’ Party are rapists and rape apologists, they covered up rape in their ranks and victimised women who came forward about it and decried “creeping feminism”, whatever that is, as an evil sectarian force, they are a writhing nest of misogyny and they are not a friend to women on the left. There was a huge exodus of former members because of the SWP’s complete and utter refusal to be anything other than horrendous misogynist rape apologists. You can read more about that here.

Despite this, they are an omnipresent force at protests in the UK. You will probably see their stalls at demos, you will probably see them handing out their shitty backwards-facing rape apologist newspaper The Socialist Worker, and you will almost certainly see a lot of people holding placards with their name on it. This means protests and demos become a space where women – especially those who have faced sexual violence / abuse / harassment – are not safe or comfortable among the people who are supposed to be on their side. Feeling unsafe at a protest because of the threat of police etc is one thing; feeling as though your allies are throwing you under the bus for the sake of a placard someone handed them is something else entirely.

If you’re at a demo in the upcoming weeks/months/years you can help to deal with this:

  • DON’T TAKE SWP PLACARDS/PAPERS/ETC. just don’t take them. just don’t. make your own. take any other placard. whatever. if you really really want to be holding a sign and the only one available to you is a SWP placard, consider bringing paper & tape / a sharpie to the demo with you so you can cover up the SWP logo. but if you can’t do that it is better to have no sign than to have a misogynist organisation’s sign.
  • DON’T LET YOUR FRIENDS TAKE THOSE THINGS EITHER. friends don’t let friends support corrupt rape apologists. explain why you’re refusing to tacitly support the SWP by holding their signs and tell everyone else to do the same thing.
  • CONTACT THE PEOPLE ORGANISING
    — in advance, email or facebook message the organisers of the demo asking if there will be a SWP presence (even if they say no it is likely the SWP will show up anyway) and asking whether it will be tolerated if so. stress the fact that the presence of the SWP actively alienates women (who are, after all, one of the marginalised groups likely to be most affected by whatever it is you’re protesting about, e.g. tory cuts); stress the fact that women will not show up to the demo, or will show up and feel upset and unsafe and triggered, if the SWP are there. encourage stuff like a post on the facebook event making clear that rape apologist organisations will not be tolerated at the demo.
    — on the day, and if you feel up to it, talk to stewards (demo stewards, not police stewards) about it if you see a SWP stall or a SWP member handing out placards etc, encourage them to ask the SWP to leave (as politely or impolitely as they feel is appropriate).
    — IF THE ORGANISERS IGNORE / DISMISS YOU despite your explanation of why the SWP are an unacceptable presence at protests, or if they are actively affiliated with the SWP, spread that shit on social media, because people who brush off these criticisms should be held accountable for their lack of care for women in their movement.
  • MAKE SURE YOU ARE LOOKING OUT FOR WOMEN (whatever your gender) at demos and in other activist spaces where this conflict about the SWP might arise. many many left-wing spaces feel latently hostile and unwelcoming to women already, because they are (like everywhere else) usually male-dominated and issues of sexism and misogyny are brushed aside as women’s problems for women to deal with. this feeling of being pushed out of what should be our movement gets far worse when our complaints about sexual violence in the left are dismissed as ‘divisive’ and ‘sectarian’, especially at protests when emotions are already running high. it’s exhausting to have to defend our right to safety among our ‘comrades’ over and over again. back up your women friends in these arguments, don’t let them face rape apologists alone.
  • IN GENERAL – IF YOU’RE A MAN, consider what you can be doing to make your leftist spaces and politics inclusive and welcoming to women; the SWP is only one particularly bad example of an endemic problem. consider a statement or policy of condemnation of the SWP. more broadly, if your group/organisation is predominantly male, ask yourself why that has happened – it’s probably not a coincidence – and how you can fix it. check whether women have ended up doing most of your work, whether that’s activist labour or emotional. pay attention to the language you’re using and whether it erases women’s struggles in favour of a homogenous or outdated idea of ‘class’ or ‘work’. steer clear of calls for “unity” and against “sectarianism” or “division”, which are usually used to shut women up.

Certainly a lot of people holding those placards at demos are ignorant of the crimes of the organisation that made them, and we can only fix that by sharing the knowledge of the SWP’s misogyny as widely as possible and not letting it fade into memory. But many more people know about the ‘scandal’ and continue to accept the alliance and support of these open, unapologetic, dangerous misogynists, whose existence is actively harmful to left-wing women. As long as this problem is not tackled, women will be pushed out of the movement. Organisers have no excuse.

Male nudity in public spaces

by Emily Mead

cw nudity, sexual assault, male entitlement, anxiety, mentions of genitalia, swearing, possible biological essentialism

x

i feel u mike

feminists are often accused of focusing too much on the little things and looking for offence; we  basically go through life searching for molehills to make mountains out of, because that’s just our idea of fun, I guess!!! so when I complain about cis men stripping down and parading around topless during summer, or drunk men peeing in public, some people just assume it’s because I’ve run out of Important Things to be angry about.

chances are, if you’re a cis man, you might vaguely know that this is annoying, but never really think about how harmful this sort of behaviour is. that’s probably because cis male nudity is normalised throughout childhood and in popular culture, whereas female nudity is portrayed as an exclusively sexual thing… cis male nudity is so commonplace that you can get away with doing it without anyone batting an eyelid (or at least, with no-one feeling safe enough to tell you it makes them uncomfortable).

cis men exposing their bodies in public spaces is really fucking irritating because just shows how entitled they feel to public spaces (you might also have heard of / partaken in manspreading). when you take your shirt off because it’s hot outside, when you pee in public because you can’t be arsed to find a bathroom, when you send unsolicited dick pics for whatever reason you thought was appropriate (???), you are implicitly asserting your dominance and saying that your comfort matters more than everyone else’s.

as if that wasn’t enough to be upset about in the first place, this sort of crap can make survivors of sexual violence really fucking uncomfortable to say the least. Gross cis men imposing their nudity on me is a really fucking awful reminder of times when dudes felt like it was ok to subject me to way more than I’d consented to— at best displays of cis male nudity make me feel disgusted and unsafe, at worst they give me panic attacks. i’m sure (i hope?) that wasn’t the intended effect.

please please p l e a s e think about what you’re doing when you treat unwanted nudity like it’s no big deal. in future, before you pull this kind of shit, think about whether or not the people around you are okay with what you’re doing. (they’re probably not).

 

two things, in case someone has opinions about this

1— please don’t even think of talking about #freethenipple and how **everyone** should get naked for equality to be achieved. not only is it weird that you’d try to use a liberation movement for people with breasts against them just to make a point, but it’s problematic in that it mostly focuses on liberating able bodied cis white women. being able to take my top off without feeling too uncomfortable is a massive fucking privilege that I have & i have 0 interest in subjecting people to that. so yeah no, “women should get naked too!!!” is not nearly as relevant or useful as you might think

2— if a woman’s experience isn’t enough to convince you that there might be something wrong with forcing your nudity on non consenting strangers, here’s a heartfelt tale from a reformed dudebro who has seen the error of his dick displaying ways (same content warnings as this article apply + alcohol, discussion of homophobia).

Movement

[TW: suicide, physical disability]

 

Each syllable
each rounded, echoing diphthong
conveys nothing, except creating delicate
incisions in my ears

My back is bristling.
I have not felt in control of this body
ever
Let alone “at home in it”
“comfortable in my skin”

On this day my legs forget how to walk,
On this day my mind attempts to kill me
And on this day, again, I fail
To speak in ways that appease people
Whose thoughts and desires are a mystery to me.
I don’t remember doing anything with ease.
I cannot even trust my body to hold me upright.

Sexuality
is something that people who are not me
possess.
How can someone who resembles
a scuffling witch
who hobbles and aches
who stutters,
who falters and forgets
own something as
precious as this?

My humanity
and my body –
all accidentals
and false starts.
I lack identity
with your movement
with myself

Space

By Mel Berill

[TWs: misogyny, classism, ableism]

 

come back and tell me

you don’t like safe spaces

when you know what it’s like

to feel unsafe

 

when you’ve walked down a street

where you’re not human

but a piece of public flesh

 

when you’ve explained you’re ill

for the thousandth time

and you know half the world still thinks it’s fiction

 

when you know for sure

that if some people got their way

you’d have even less to live on

than you do now

 

when your home is not

cosy and safe

 

when your words are not

worshipped and valued

 

when your body is not

important.

 

come back and tell me then

that I’m not allowed a space

where people have agreed to respect me

and I them.

 

where people try not to hurt me

and I them.

 

where I can listen to people

who need safety more than me

and let their words

sit above mine.

 

where, sometimes, it’s all right

for me not to speak

or even be there

because I’m white

and cis

and I can know that sometimes, to keep people safe

i must keep quiet.

 

when you know what it’s like to need that space

come back and tell us we can’t have it.

come back and tell us then.

 

you will, of course

you’ll come back louder, stronger

full of bile

and make us listen

in your column

on your platform

through your megaphone

’til it’s deafening.

 

that’s why we need spaces

where we can’t hear you.

and fuck you

we’re going to make them.

 

Good Men don’t exist

 

cn: mention of sexual violence, transphobia, racism

1.22that is all.

 

 

 

Call Me Medusa

By Amy Clark

tw: rape mention, misogyny, racism body policing,

Call me Medusa,

for my monstrosity is not mine to bear

but yours to fear.

When I first started writing this article, it was going to be about the rape of Medusa and the analogy between her punishment and the treatment of rape victims in modern society. A god raped Medusa and she was punished for it with ugliness and exile from society. When women are raped today they are blamed, ostracised and ‘othered’ in an eerily similar manner. Because when the perpetrators of a crime are untouchable – whether because they are gods or simply because of their dominance in society – it is the victim of their crime who ends up being blamed for it.

But this is going to be about ugliness: about ugliness as a punishment and a weapon against women, about the power that people calling (or making) you ugly have over you and about the power that you can have over them in return.

If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls you might remember the scene where the Plastics stand in front of a mirror and say in turns what’s wrong with their bodies. They insult their nailbeds, their hairlines, their pores. Then, in a voiceover, Cady says, “I used to think there was just fat and skinny. But apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong on your body.”

And she’s right.

Ugliness is being fat and being too skinny, yes, but it’s also having skin that isn’t white, having short hair, having outspoken opinions, saying no to a guy, wearing baggy clothes, wearing tight clothes, showing too much or too little skin, having a big nose, having a small mouth, being a feminist, being too educated, not being educated enough, eating too much food, biting your nails, not shaving all of your body hair, fucking too many people … Ugliness is everything about us that isn’t ‘right’, which means it’s every part of us that doesn’t live up to an idealised and impossible standard of what it is to be a woman or a person.

Calling women ugly is a fear tactic in itself and ugliness has been used as a weapon against us for so long. When we live in fear of being ugly we live in fear of being ‘outside’ of society and we try and try and try to do everything we can to fit into the restrictive lines of what ‘normal’ is. If a characteristic of yours is something societally viewed as ugly – and everyone has many – then you are consistently being told that you are not right and that who and what you are is not okay.

In the same way, calling someone ugly or calling some characteristic ugly is a gross way of perpetuating so many different forms of discrimination in society. When women bleach their skin, it is because darker skin is considered uglier. Women shave or bleach their body hair because hairiness is an ugly quality for a woman to have. Queer and masculine women are ugly because their presentation does not fit with the stereotypical concepts of femininity and what it is to be a woman. Ugliness and what is ugly is not a subjective opinion, it is a response to age-old and pervasive discrimination, oppression and elitism.

But where does Medusa fit into this?

DuBois has said that ‘The myth of Medusa, is a myth of fear of women, fear of […] their self-sufficiency, their buried power’. DuBois is not talking about Medusa when she was ‘beautiful’, when her existence fell within the norms. All of Medusa’s ‘power’ comes when she is made ugly and exiled from the rest of the world. And the power isn’t because she was ugly, but because she was unapologetic about her own monstrosity. Her ugliness wasn’t something she could change or cover up – she was unequivocally and irrevocably ‘other’ – it was something that terrified and (literally) petrified the rest of society.

Whilst it’s hard to talk about ‘buried power’ without sounding like a pretentious self-help guru, what I and many others have found is that we have to stop apologising for ourselves and the parts of us that are ‘ugly’. We accept ourselves as ‘other’ because the ‘normal’ that we’re supposed to fold ourselves to fit is just a load of impossible restrictions that have nothing to do with subjective beauty and everything to do with damaging and systematic discrimination.

As much as I wish it was true, practising radical self-love and refusing to apologise for whatever is monstrous about you doesn’t give you the power to turn people to stone when you glare at them. Deciding that you won’t accept the body policing that society tries to impose on you wont suddenly mean that you love yourself, because ‘ugliness’ is too ingrained for us to magic it away.

There’s the cliché that as long as you’re confident, people will think that you’re beautiful. This is bullshit. Confident women get insulted and called ugly all the time. But when you tell people that you don’t give a fuck – when you show off your unshaven armpits in pride, when you say your opinions loudly and don’t shut up when people disagree with you, when you wear the hotpants and don’t apologise for it or try to cover up – at least people are fucking terrified.

 

 

On being an Angry Girl on the Internet

by Martha Rose Saunders

A few weeks ago, I discovered that the “other” inbox on Facebook existed. When I opened it, scrolling through the hundreds of messages sent to me by strangers over the course of five years, I started crying. Amongst the incomprehensible scam mail and bizarrely misguided attempts at flirting from mysterious sleazy men were the messages I’d been waiting to read all my life. They were messages sent by strangers and friends of friends who’d seen comments I’d written on Facebook threads or found my articles shared, thanking me for taking the time to call someone out on sexism or classism, admiring me for having the courage to stand up for what I believed in, wishing they had done so themselves. There were messages from men I’d deleted for their continued sexist behavior, sending me messages months later to tell me how much I’d made them think and apologizing for the harm they’d caused. Tears streaming down my face, I read paragraph after paragraph of praise, gratitude, support, and love.

 

The complete emotional collapse I experienced made me realize how much I had come to hate myself for my outspokenness. I know I’m something of a joke among both friends and enemies. I know you mock me both to my face and more viciously behind my back for my feminism and my proclivity for Facebook ‘debates.’ What I didn’t realize is how much I’d internalised that rhetoric and allowed it to harden me.

 

I can think of almost nothing that gets you more shit than being an outspoken young feminist. By the time I left sixth form I was hardly a radical, merely a normal teenage girl who happened to have Labour party membership and a vague understanding of sexism which didn’t extend to much more than actively complaining about having my tits grabbed by a stranger in a nightclub. By that point, I had already had a personal parody twitter account set up about me called Shut Up Martha (tagline “just shut the fuck up, nobody cares”) and a small cohort of boys who laughed and mimicked my voice if I spoke in Politics class and took it upon themselves to inform fellow men who deigned to flirt with me at parties that I was The Feminist and thus they should avoid me at all costs.

 

The Feminist – that was my identity now, and I could be nothing more. A radical change in people’s perception of my personality occurred. Never mind that my most frequently complimented traits before I became The Feminist were my sense of humour and my laid back, logical approach – that didn’t fit people’s idea of me, and my real personality didn’t matter any more. The Feminist is angry, shouty, humourless and irrational – so that’s what I am now. I’ve gone from popular, funny, chilled, and well liked to an “arrogant cunt,” a “cocky fucking bitch,” a “fucking pathetic” “Feminazi” who needs to “shut the fuck up, nobody cares.” Last week someone on Twitter informed me that “everyone knows about you and tells me about your fucking shitty pathetic internet activism.”

 

This isn’t unusual. Most of my outspoken female friends find their acquaintances taking to cyberspace to punch them down the second they get up and start talking for themselves, from the Tab commenters who spew misogynistic bile at Women’s Campaign members to my friend who found herself the subject of bullying tweets for appearing on a pre-election debate on TV this week – tweets by people who hadn’t even watched the show or heard what she had to say, but merely opposed her right to express political opinions full stop.

 

I won’t waste my time elaborating on why this is blatantly a manifestation of the archaic, sexist sense that women should not be confident, opinionated or strong. Nonetheless, somewhere along the way I absorbed it. I hated myself so much. Every time I put forward my opinion, shared something, commented on something, the core of me felt deeply, deeply ashamed. I would listen to the assaults on my character and believe them, go to bed after a Facebook debate in floods of tears and racked with self-loathing.

 

I cried that week in my little University room last term because those messages made me realise that I mattered. For every person who’d tried to stamp me out there were ten who rushed to support me, hold my hand and love me. For every man who’d felt threatened by the fact I dared to criticise him, there was one who’d written to thank me for the impact I’d had, tell me I had made a difference to him, and that he respected me.

 

I’d allowed people to turn me into exactly what they wanted me to be; an angry girl, hard as nails, tumbling through life lashing out and screaming into the wind. I saw myself as part of a constant losing battle against the few people who bullied me, instead of as part of a chain reaction of people, constantly touching each others lives, constantly changing one another for the better. But simultaneously, the vitriol I received in response to the most mild sentiments I expressed about gender only radicalised me further, proving beyond doubt that my sex was affecting people’s perception of me more than I ever realised. Most young, political, feminist women you’ll meet are tough, angry and cynical because we have to be. If I wasn’t, I would crumble in the face of the pure, unmitigated hatred I receive.

 

What I would want to share with people from my experiences, is this; next time you’re about to criticize me, or another outspoken woman, (or man for that matter) for being too “politically active” on the internet ask yourself;

 

“is what I’m saying about her coming from a place of misogyny? would I say this about any of the men on my feed throwing their opinions all about the place?”

“why could she be so angry and defensive about this? what kind of crap has she had to put up with, growing up in a sexist world? could I just be unhelpfully adding to a toxic culture that is constantly trying to put down outspoken women?”

“literally why do I even give the slightest shit about what this poor person is doing with her own time on her own personal social media accounts? what is making me care so much? what the fuck is wrong with me? do I need a hobby?”

 

And what I’ve learned, and what I want to tell the other angry girls on the internet – keep going, and know that you are loved. Know that you are making a difference to people. Know that every misogynistic twat who tries to knock you down is only doing so because by speaking against him, you make his dying order crumble. Know that every time you stand up for what you believe in, you are making a difference to people. Tell each other how much you admire each other. Become each other’s support system. And know that every day you are revered, quietly.

 

Know, finally, this – a message sent to me by a stranger in 2013.

“For each and every one of your comments, there were many more that were never written because of lack of energy or conviction that it would change anyone’s mind. You just made the world a little bit better and people like you deserve to be commended.”

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