In an effort to move to a greener existence, I recently switched to an ecological toothbrush. As I have been living uniquely from solar panels for almost two years, I was forced to ditch my electric toothbrush. In choosing an ecological toothbrush, I studied materials, as well as the advantages of recycled plastic brushes versus those with replaceable heads. In the end, I had to eliminate every single option aside from the single one I chose. Yes, I had to exclude that which did not meet my personal standards and convenience.
I think a lot about exclusion these days. The #MeToo campaign which emerged in reaction to the sexually aggressive acts of Harvey Weinstein is clearly a female-centered campaign. But recently I’ve seen arguments that #MeToo should be extended to include males. While being “inclusive” of everyone might seem like a nice idea, the reality is that there are perfectly rational reasons for exclusivity in many situations. Our shared experiences with certain humans help us form bonds where and when we need them. These bonds can often make life bearable for those experiencing particularly painful moments in their lives. Commonalities help to create community.
The truth is that all communities are exclusive, in one way or another, of individuals who don’t share certain experiences or requisites. While some might be tempted to argue exclusion equates to segregation, such arguments are very much apples and oranges, particularly in the context of women’s rights.
There are several key differences which should be underscored, when discussing “exclusion” in the women’s liberation movement, beginning with the myth that feminism must focus on males. Thanks to liberal feminists like Emma Watson, among others, many women have been made to believe that arguing for the inclusion of males in the women’s movement is a worthwhile cause. But any group in protest of its oppression by another group is within its rights to demand that the oppressor not be included in its organizing. For instance, when labour unions secured the legal right to represent employees in 1935, employers were excluded from the class of employees because it was understood that employers (as well as managers and supervisors) held power over workers. In terms of economic class, it seems that most people are on the same page when understanding which group holds power over another.
Similarly, civil rights advocacy began with the premise that there is social inequality between people of colour and white people, making a necessary distinction between who is being oppressed under white supremacy. Robbing a person of the right to distinguish the oppressor class means that she is barred from speaking about and identifying her oppression.
Nobody expected the Black Panthers to consider the marginalization of KKK members from their organization for good reason. Similarly, no such claim of exclusion was made about the Million Man March in Washington D.C. in 1995, when approximately 400,000 African American men converged en masse in the nation’s capital to engage in teach-ins, worship services, and community organizing. While there was a discussion over the fact that women were excluded, there was also recognition that black men had the right to gather without women to discuss their issues, and this action was largely supported by African American women. Two years later, the Million Woman March was held in D.C. to focus on issues specific to women.
This sort of exclusion is not based in hatred or a desire to do harm. Exclusion is how we decide, like me and my ecological toothbrush choices, what meets our needs. Exclusion is not necessarily about owning a card to an elite club — it is about setting a particular direction for an individual, group, activity, community, and so forth. All social groups exclude in some way. While I am a big believer in reaching over the aisle to dialogue with those responsible for our subordination, I also recognize the need of any group to make decisions within its group before reaching across that aisle.
And exclusion isn’t only important for the purposes of political organizing. Breast cancer survivors, for example, form or join support groups where they can share their common experiences of coping with the disease, its treatment, and its effects on their breasts and bodies. Cancer and its various treatments pose challenges to the body, including changes or interruption to the menstrual cycle and libido. But beyond the physical, there are very personal and psychological reactions to breast cancer arising from social expectations of the female body that follow women from girlhood through to adulthood. Such a support group, in excluding males, is not saying that males are less important or unworthy of psychological and social care. It is simply evoking a social fact: males experience illness differently from females.
Does the fact of breast cancer support groups for women mean that males cannot get breast cancer? Of course not. And there are breast cancer support groups for males. Why? Because males and females experience breast cancer differently.
Commonalities between same-sexed bodies are part of the social intimacy that both males and females alike cherish across cultures. Be it in the hammam or the steam room, the hospital ward, or the changing room at the gym, there is intimacy between people of the same sex that provides a space of security and dignity. Females especially value these spaces because the public sphere is not safe for women. Being in a female-only changing room can offer women a needed reprieve from the daily sexualization of their bodies, and from unwanted male attention and judgment.
The issue of “exclusion” has become a touchpoint for the left in recent years. Most notably, we have seen exclusion being derided as bigotry in trans activist circles where women who say they would not feel comfortable with a male in their change rooms, their women’s shelters, or in a women’s prison are labelled transphobic. Yet both these examples come from real life paradigms.
In 2007, Vancouver Rape Relief Society won a case against Kimberly Nixon, a trans-identified male who had attempted to join the training group for peer counsellors at the women’s shelter. Nixon was asked to leave the group account of having been born male, and because the shelter operated on the basis that women could best counsel other women, having had the specific experience of growing up female under patriarchy. The B.C. Court of Appeals’ decided that Vancouver Rape Relief had the right to determine its own membership, as any oppressed group of people has the right to “discriminate” when organizing in their own interests, as a class. Currently pending in Texas is the case of three female inmates who are suing Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, claiming that, “They are living in a degrading and dangerous environment by being forced to share showers and bathrooms with the transgender inmates.” The truth is that, for most women, sex does matter. What is more remarkable is that males who claim to have an internal “female identity” have zero compassion for or comprehension of the reality women face in a male supremacist world, and would prefer women put aside their own material reality, comfort, and safety in order to validate men’s feelings.
Choosing a female gynecologist or desiring a female-only space for changing is not meant to incriminate all males as, to paraphrase George W. Bush, “evil doers.” Rather, a woman might choose a female gynecologist both because she feels a woman would better understand her body, but also because she feels safer in that vulnerable state with someone statistically unlikely to assault them. Women’s desire to change in a locker room without male-bodied persons would likely be based on something similar, as well as a desire to maintain healthy boundaries that too often go unrespected. In excluding males from female spaces, women are demanding that society accept the healthy boundaries of women, even if, in certain scenarios, males might wish to be on the other side of the line.
Last week, Bustle ran a story arguing that “some members of LGBTQ community feel that the [#MeToo] campaign focuses too strongly on the gender binary and seems to erase nonbinary or genderqueer people from the conversation.” But what this statement really conveys is that males feel excluded from a conversation lead by women speaking out about male violence.
While I would not deny that males experience violence, it is overwhelmingly violence inflicted by other males. What makes #MeToo important is that violence against women and girls is coded into the structural social hierarchy. When women contribute their #MeToo stories, they are doing so as females who have, from childhood, been groomed as objects that exist for male use.
It cannot be overstated that females suffer disproportionate levels of sex-based discrimination and violence, including sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape, and trafficking. Women are quite aware that they are discriminated against and physically abused because of their sex, regardless of how they may feel, internally, about the gender roles imposed on them. It is entirely insignificant, for example, how the over 200 women who James Toback sexually harassed identified.
To demand that #MeToo include non-binary people is to miss the point of the feminist movement: feminism has from its inception been explicitly about breaking the hierarchy and stereotypes reinforced through gender which demanded women not leave the house, not vote, and not work. It is not the “binary” that is the problem so much as it is gender itself, under patriarchy. Men who rape women don’t care whether their victims feel “binary” or not.
What Bustle would like is for women to use a language that is seemingly more neutral, less politically objectionable, and more inclusive… of males. Otherwise there would be no uproar with focusing specifically on women’s voices and experiences in this campaign. Males insisting on being “included” in women’s social protest against sexism is just more of the same sexism — women are being instructed to shut up about their oppression by males unless they include males. Beyond that, under patriarchy, women are always under pressure to be sexually available to men. This new language of “inclusion” that frames “exclusion” as inherently harmful has led to males who identify as transgender to insist that women include them not only in their groups and politics, but in their beds. That this is explicitly sexist is made clear through the fact that I have yet to see any male who identifies as trans pressure heterosexual men into sleeping with him.
A narrative that insists on coercing or goading women into including their oppressor is anything but progressive. Likewise, insisting that the language of gender neutrality is what matters in a conversation about sexual violence is far from revolutionary. Taking up the five-cent terms like “non-binary” and “queer” will have no impact on the facts of sex-based oppression for females. The challenge we face as a society is not to carpet bomb women’s movements with accusations of “exclusivity” and “bigotry” when women recognize that males and females are different and have different needs.
Creating linguistic games might seem avant-garde to undergraduates, but the reality is that gender is what prescribes the behavioral cues engrained in females throughout their lives. Gender is what is hammered into females as a class, rendering them subjects of a discourse they have no power to respond to. The notion that gender can ever be neutral is patently absurd since gender is not the solution. It is the problem.
Changing language to be “be more inclusive” is counter-revolutionary and pretending that such language does anything other than prevent women from effectively organizing towards their own liberation is delusory. The language of gender inclusivity does nothing to dismantle the social and political inequalities that females face. It does, however, create a lovely illusion (especially for men who want to seem progressive in their attempts to thwart our movement): that saying “genderqueer” makes one a “feminist.”
Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development. Contact her via email: [email protected]