Rather than disappear, patriarchy appears to simply mutate and evolve, presenting itself slightly differently over time. Underneath, the mechanisms of exploitation and abuse persist, and the consequences for women remain the same.
In 1807, German philosopher Hegel wrote in The Phenomenology of Mind that the awareness of man’s self-consciousness emerges through imposing himself onto another individual. An individual, Hegel described, “whose very nature implies that it is bound up with an independent being.”
In turn, the relationship of the two people becomes that of master and slave, a dynamic which, in Hegel’s view, is necessary to man’s higher development.
The belief that identity formation depends on breaking the personhood of one until they become subordinate to the other is, as Sarah Lucia Hoagland describes in Lesbian Ethics, central to Western patriarchal modes of thought and permeates women’s lives today.
Male supremacy rests on the notion that women are hardwired to have our boundaries broken — that it is in our very nature that we are permeable, malleable, and always available to men. As girls, we are taught that our own sexual and psychic freedom is of little importance compared to that of our male counterparts.
In late capitalism, the status given to women and girls is arguably that of a subhuman — a commodified grey area, as our bodies are not considered to be a real and identifiable boundary, but a line to be pushed against until it weakens and breaks.
Too often, the structures which on the surface appear to advance human rights have the effect of protecting men who break women’s boundaries. The white men who sexually abused Haitian women and girls remained protected by their positions as aid workers at Oxfam, a “progressive” Western NGO. The University of Warwick is an institution that supposedly fosters “an environment of mutual respect and dignity,” yet recently permitted the early return of two male students suspended over making a series of racist and misogynist comments, including threats of rape, on social media.
In 2014, 22-year-old Christopher Worton pleaded guilty to five counts of rape against a female child. Three years later, Worton changed his name to Zoe Lynes. In January this year, Worton was convicted of breaching the terms of a sexual harm prevention order by visiting the home of an acquaintance while a young child was present.
Yet in court and in subsequent press coverage, total obedience was accorded to Worton’s chosen pronouns. Christopher Aggrey, defending, went so far as to suggest that Worton’s breach was a result of isolation due to “her” gender transition.
The case of Worton, as in the cases of the Oxfam aid workers and the students at the University of Warwick, shows that even in the most extreme instances of male violence, men will grant each other impunity when it comes to breaking women’s boundaries.
Through “identifying” as female, Worton continues to act out a fantasy based on the sexual degradation of women and girls. By referring to Worton as “she,” the very men who claim to protect his victim undermine the sex-based boundaries which distinguish her from him. Patriarchy, hidden under a guise of “inclusivity,” ensures once more that men’s so-called freedom of expression comes at the cost of women’s bodily integrity.
The uncritical societal endorsement of men who choose to “identify” as women is not entirely surprising. The use of language to construct women’s bodies as abstract is inseparable from the culture in which the female body has been ritualistically invaded, dominated, and treated as meaningless by men.
In her groundbreaking text Intercourse, published in 1987, Andrea Dworkin wrote that during the heterosexual act, the skin itself collapses as a boundary, losing all meaning.
For women living in a culture of male sexual domination, Dworkin described how “the transgression of those boundaries comes to signify a sexually charged degradation into which she throws herself, having been told, convinced, that identity, for a female, is there — somewhere beyond privacy and respect.”
For women, being female has never been a private matter. Institutions such as marriage, prostitution, enforced sterilization, and rape mark women’s bodies as public domain across the world.
It is relatively simple, therefore, to persuade a class of people who have been groomed into seeing their body as not completely their own, that the same body can be claimed by men as an “identity.”
Liberal feminism mandates that women should assert our own boundaries, that no means no, and that men do not have a right to do whatever they want to us. At the same time, it tells us to deny the very markers that draw a line between bodies that are female and those that are male. What is a demarcation of our distinct individuality, the lines of the body that make us both human and female in our own right, is rendered irrelevant by “gender identity.”
The threats and abuse women have faced for pointing out that their bodies are not a playground for postmodernists and that there are physical differences between women and men remain remarkably similar to those faced by women who say no, in any context, to men.
When will liberal feminists recognize the fatal flaw in their logic? In arguing that women have a right to sexual boundaries in some situations but not in others, they impose a misogynistic double standard on women everywhere. They reinforce the myth that establishing boundaries, as women, rests on whether we are dealing with “good” or “bad” men — except in this case, we cannot even call them men.
In her essay “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” Marilyn Frye writes:
“… One who sees with a loving eye is separate from the other whom she sees. There are boundaries between them; she and the other are two; their interests are not identical; they are not blended in vital parasitic or symbiotic relations, nor does she believe they are or try to pretend they are.”
By refusing to view women as distinct, many across the political spectrum are choosing to see women with a not-so-loving eye. On the most part, they are choosing not to see women at all, undoing decades of feminist activism which has fought against the notion of women as a terrain for male sexual fantasies.
The concept of “gender identity” does not subvert, but strengthens male rule. It shows us that the status of women as a class remains fundamentally unchanged. The recognition of women’s boundaries is contingent on men’s definition of what she is in relation to him; the latest iteration of patriarchy being that women are now an identity for men to take on and off as they please.
This is a dangerous game to play, if women are to argue that we are not, by nature, boundaryless. Regaining the sexual integrity stolen from us by centuries of patriarchal rule will take a lot more than pretending that our sex — a boundary in and of itself — does not exist at all.
May Mundt-Leach is an undergraduate student from the UK. She founded and helps coordinate Women Talk Back!, a women’s consciousness-raising group at her university. The opinions expressed here are only representative of her own.