Posts Tagged ‘Society’

Dear Mr Delingpole,

I’ve just come across your nauseatingly clueless piece, Why it’s not sexist to say that boys should never play with dolls, and was so impressed by your complete and utter failure to understand the issues you’re discussing, not to say your sexism, that I felt the need to respond to it in full. Not so much because I think you’ll listen to a word I have to say, but because it’s necessary; and because, quite frankly, I think my head might explode if I don’t. So, without further ado: here is why you are wrong. (All bolding for emphasis is mine.)

Not so long ago the “progressive” headmistress of a very smart all-girls’ boarding school invited me to dinner with some of her brightest sixth formers.

One by one the girls were asked to tell me of their impressive future plans: “Engineering, Cambridge; physics, Oxford; maths, Imperial; an astronaut; a mining engineer; a brain surgeon…”

“And which of you just wants to settle down and bring up a family?” I interrupted, partly to annoy the zappy, go-ahead, right-on headmistress but partly out of genuine curiosity. 

The girl I most admired was the single one to raise her hand. It takes real courage these days for a girl to fight against the political correctness of our time and follow her true nature.

So, Mr Delingpole: let’s be clear. You, an adult man, were invited to an all girl’s school to have dinner with students selected especially for their academic potential – presumably so that you could encourage them in their fields of choice. You, however, appear to have been cynical of this endeavour from the outset; at the very least, you evince little respect for the woman who invited you, calling her a progressive-as-insult and pettily interrupting her in front of her students for your own amusement.

You then asked the girls, who were there to hear you support their academic ambitions, how many of them wanted to settle down and raise a family. More than that: you interrupted the listing of their goals - as though the information you’d been specifically invited to hear was both boring and irrelevant – and asked them instead the most sexist, inappropriate question you could possibly think of; the same question which, over and over and over again, has been used to derail the passion and dedication of professional women: when are you going to give up on all this career nonsense and settle down with a man?

The problem isn’t just that you asked the girls about their plans to have families, although doing so was both invasive and deeply inappropriate. The problem is that you not only situated the question of their settling down as being more important than the career ambitions they wanted to tell you about, but phrased it as though the two options – career and family – were mutually exclusive. You didn’t ask them if they also wanted families; you asked them if they wanted to “bring up” a family: to be, primarily, mothers and caregivers. Which is what you seem to think most, if not all women, naturally aspire to be, in the absence of meddling, “zappy” headmistresses. You describe the one girl who said yes as having the courage to “follow her true nature” – as though every girl at the table secretly wanted to be a mother herself, and was just too shy or too brainwashed to dare admit it.

I am a mother myself, Mr Delingpole – currently a full-time one, in fact. I have every respect for motherhood, and no delusions whatsoever about how valuable, underpraised and challenging it is to raise a child. But what you did was despicable. In 2014, you told a group of ambitious, clever teenage girls that the most important thing they could do was settle down, reserving your admiration, not for the girls who bucked your narrow expectations of what women should be, but the one who conformed. Never mind your assumption that all these girls were straight, which is a different problem altogether – because I have no doubt that, when you asked if they wanted to bring up a family, you meant a traditional, heterosexual pairing, preferably one that was legalised by marriage. You diminished them by denying their potential, Mr Delingpole – and now, in print, you’re boasting about it.

Does this make me sound like a complete sexist pig?

It does, because you are. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the ability to ask a rhetorical question about whether or not you’re a sexist pig is not some magical proof against actually being a sexist pig.

Well, possibly. But that is because I happen to be one of those reactionary dinosaur fathers who would like his beloved daughter to end up in a career which suits her talents and interests.

If she wants to be a welder or lorry driver or a rocket scientist all well and good. 

But the last thing she needs is some trendy teacher steering her towards a traditionally male profession to prove some dubious political point.

Do not wave your daughter at me like she’s a point-scoring mannequin, Mr Delingpole. Plenty of sexists have daughters. Your claim to want the best for her doesn’t change the fact that you happily sat in a room full of other people’s daughters, assumed that their collective interest in “traditionally male” professions was the unnatural consequence of some teacher’s political agenda rather than the natural consequence of having their native interests and talents encouraged by someone who didn’t think their gender was a handicap, and then tut-tutted at their reticence to give the “correct” answer to a question so invasive and personal you’d be out of bounds asking it of an adult colleague or family member, let alone a strange teenager.

If your first thought on hearing a schoolgirl profess an interest in brain surgery or mathematics is to assume, on the basis of nothing more than her gender and her teacher’s enthusiasm for her intelligence, that she must have been pressured into it, then yes: you are a sexist.

This is where I think Tory MP Liz Truss was a bit silly the other day when she told parliament’s The House magazine that chemistry sets should be aimed as much at girls as at boys.

Nice theory but what would be the purpose? A toy business’s job is to make profit not engage in social engineering

And if as consumer research has shown, it appears that boys are the prime market for test tubes, chemicals and smelly potions, why waste time and effort trying to drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets?

Let me ask you a serious question, Mr Delingpole: do young girls gravitate towards pink things because of some innate, female preference for the colour, or do they like pink because everything in our culture tells them that pink is feminine? Let me give you a hint: historically, pink was considered a masculine colour more suitable for boys than girls, while blue was considered feminine. In point of fact, pink didn’t signify feminine until as recently as the 1940s - but now, it’s so ubiquitously considered the colour for girls that we seldom think about why.

I mention this because you seem to be operating under two misguided assumptions: firstly, that social engineering is something toy companies aren’t already doing;  and secondly, that social engineering is inimical to profit. Both these assertions are false. There’s no innate reason why boys should like chemistry sets more than girls – unless you think there’s really some truth in the tired, scientifically unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim that women are inherently worse at, and consequently less interested in, the hard sciences (more of which later). But as to the question of why toy companies sell some products for boys and others for girls – consider what would happen if they didn’t. If all toys were simply accepted as being for everyone, regardless of  gender, then why would parents need to buy two otherwise identical items – one pink, one blue – to spare their son the social indignity of playing with a girl’s toy? If pink and blue weren’t gendered colours, then why would parents need to rush out and buy a whole new set of otherwise identical baby clothes for an expected girl because their first child was a boy, and boy colours would be inappropriate?

By not only making some toys explicitly for girls and others for boys, but by socially enforcing the narrative that such divisions are natural and necessary through their advertising campaigns, toy companies increase their profits by effectively forcing adults to buy extra or duplicate products for children of different genders. If it’s socially unacceptable for brothers and sisters to play with the same things, then even when it might be more cost-effective for parents to buy one toy and let their mixed-gender offspring share it, they end up buying two. This phenomenon is particularly evident at the cheaper end of the spectrum – that is, at toys and clothes marketed to poorer families. Whereas richer parents can  afford the boutique prices being charged by companies quick to cash in on the revelation that there’s a viable market for gender-neutral options (which is just one example of how removing the boy/girl fixation can be profitable for toymakers), poorer families cannot, which makes them all – adults and children alike – more dependant on heavily gendered products.

I say again: toy companies are already engaged in social engineering for profit. The only difference with what’s being proposed by people like me, who dislike the compulsive gendering of children’s products, is that we’re trying to fix a system that’s both toxic and very deeply broken, to the point of actively contributing to the negative treatment of girls and women elsewhere in our culture. I shouldn’t have to say this, but even though companies exist to make money, their profits cannot and should not be prioritised over every other human or social concern. Just as we’re right to be outraged about sweatshop labour, the use of poisonous chemicals, factory pollutants and the other many and devastating outrages that routinely occur when companies are allowed to privilege profits over everything else, we are also right to hold companies socially accountable for the injustices their products and advertising help perpetuate.

For instance: the fashion industry uses heavily airbrushed images of frequently underage, underweight models to sell clothes to young girls, portraying this highly specialised body type as both beautiful and ideal. The corresponding rise in anorexia, bulemia, poor self esteem, body dysmorphia and depression among the target demographic of these campaigns is not, therefore, unrelated to fashion marketing – and especially not when we consider that the same industry has been known to airbrush sick models into looking healthy, recruit new models outside eating disorder clinics, produce clothes dummies that are the same size as anorexic girls, and sell girls sexualised “Anna Rexia” Halloween costumes. This being so, we’re not wrong to say that the fashion industry’s profits aren’t more important than the damage their current advertising and business plans are doing, and to try and take action accordingly. By the same token, it doesn’t matter if boys are perceived to be the “prime market” for science-based toys: women in STEM fields are battling sexism, struggling for recognition both currently and historically, and the discrimination against them starts early (as evidenced, among other things, by your own poor treatment of teenage girls aspiring to STEM work). This is a real problem, and one not helped when toy and clothing companies habitually tell girls that science isn’t something they either can or should aspire to. That’s why it’s not a “waste [of] time and effort” to “drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets” – because we’re not “dragging” them, forbidding them one and insisting they take the other. We’re simply trying to give them a choice; one that you, Mr Delingpole, seem to think they neither deserve nor merit.

Because it is “sexist” I suppose. That at least is how the various feminist lobby groups would see it.

Yes. Yes, it is.

One is called Pink Stinks which campaigns against “gender stereotyping” in the toy industry. 

Another – Let Toys Be Toys – successfully persuaded Marks & Spencer earlier this year into announcing that it would no longer sell gender-specific toys. Liz Truss hailed this campaign as “fantastic”.

But is it really “fantastic” to deny boys and girls the kind of toys they most want just to demonstrate how enlightened and post-sexist you are? 

What you’re failing to grasp here, Mr Delingpole, is that nobody wants to deny little girls their princesses, any more than we want to deny little boys their chemistry sets. What we want is to give children the option of choosing what suits them without being told it’s only meant for children of a different gender: to say that fairies and knights and Lego and trucks and dolls can be for ANYONE. You, however, quite categorically are denying children”the kind of toys they most want” – by refusing to allow the possibility of girls who like dinosaurs, as I did growing up, or boys who like Strawberry Shortcake, as some of my male friends did. By concerning yourself with only a majority of children whose interests are defined as constituting such by toy companies with a vested financial interest in not changing anything, you are making it harder, if not impossible, for all children to enjoy the toys they want to play with. For God’s sake, get it into your head: the only people “forcing” children to do anything are the ones who come along yelling about how it’s wrong for boys to have dolls while simultaneously kicking the Lego away from their daughters’ outstretched fingers.

If girl toddlers want to spend their time playing with dollies – and they do – and if small boys want to spend their time constructing things out of Lego where exactly is the social benefit in frustrating their natural urges?

Before I had children of my own I was much more open-minded on this score. I was always perfectly prepared to believe – as the “experts” tell us – that behaviour is a social construct and that boys and girls act the way they do because of the roles that we parents force upon them through unconscious gender stereotyping.

Then I saw for myself at first hand what boys and girls are really like and the scales fell from my eyes. 

From as soon as she was able to walk my daughter seemed to like nothing better than pushing a baby dolly round in a pushchair. 

My son at the same age was only interested in sitting around on his fat bottom, building things with bricks and smashing them up.

Almost any parent who has had both boys and girls will tell you this.

No matter how hard you try to bring your kids up in a gender-neutral way – even if you refuse point blank to dress them in stereotypical blue or pink romper suits – those XX and XY chromosomes will out in the end. 

Are you aware, Mr Delingpole, that there’s a fundamental difference between natural behaviour and socially conditioned behaviour? And are you also aware that social conditioning can kick in from an extraordinarily young age? While some children doubtless do have innate personal preferences for dolls or blocks – preferences which sometimes align with their biological sex, and sometimes don’t – that’s not the full story. From the time they’re born, we dress girls in pink and boys in blue; we treat them differently even before they’re big enough for such differences to matter, our own biases so culturally entrenched that we don’t always realise we’re doing it. A recent study found that parents are more likely to explain science concepts to their sons than their daughters, for instance, while another found that mothers were far more likely to underestimate their baby daughters’ crawling skills while overestimating their sons’ abilities at the same tasks. Many adults actively police gender-conformity in children, and once they’re teenagers, despite the existence of “zappy”, “progressive” authority figures like the headmistress you openly mocked, many teachers and school speakers alike line up to continue the process, with a particular emphasis on shaming girls.  Even little children have a gender wage gap, with girls performing more household chores than boys for less pocket money, while this heartbreaking analysis of what parents Google about their children shows a preoccupation with female beauty and male intelligence. No matter our intentions, all parents suffer from the implicit biases we’ve absorbed and internalised as normative from the culture in which we live – so when we see our children conforming to gender stereotypes despite our efforts, however slim, we often assume it must be the result of some inherent, internal difference, after all.

In her excellently researched book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine refers to this position as ‘biology as fallback’ – one adopted by parents who, for whatever reason, didn’t expect to see their children exhibit stereotypical behaviours, and who subsequently assumed that gender stereotypes must really be innate. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” she writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to explain – at length, her conclusions backed up by multiple studies – this simply isn’t the case. Rather, there’s only so much individual parents can do to successfully implement gender neutral parenting when, in every other aspect of their lives, children are exposed to a wider culture that overwhelmingly tells them the opposite.  It’s one thing, for instance, to try and tell your daughter she’s free to enjoy superheroes and princesses in equal measure if, every time she sets foot on the playground, she’s mocked for playing with action figures and praised, whether by her peers or her teachers, for dressing prettily.

All of which is a way of saying, Mr Delingpole, that no – the behaviours you’re observing aren’t the undeniable result of some absolute chromosonal impulse that tells girls to cuddle and boys to smash. They’re not even universal behaviours; the fact that your children confirm to stereotype doesn’t automatically mean that every child, everywhere, does, regardless of whether their parents are fans of gender-neutral parenting or view it with total antipathy.

Give a girl a doll and she will cuddle it and nurture it. Give a boy a doll and he will either torture and dismember it or use it as a hand grenade.

I find it extremely disturbing that you class  torture and dismemberment as inherently male characteristics, strong enough to be evident even in childhood – and more, that you seem to think boys are incapable of cuddling and nurturing. What you’re describing here isn’t a synonym for boisterousness or rough play, but something far more disturbing. Have you honestly never met a little boy with a favourite stuffed animal, one he loves and cuddles and cannot bear to be without? Because I have, many times. My own son, now nearly one, is among them: just as I did throughout my entire childhood, he has developed a particular affection for one of his toys, a plush owl. This owl goes everywhere with him, subject to constant hugging, chewing and fierce, babyish love. If the owl isn’t within reach, he won’t go to sleep; the one time we needed to wash it around bedtime to get rid of a moldy smell, he screamed and cried for the whole two and a half hours it took for the dryer cycle to finish, then fell asleep the instant we placed it into his hands. He’s too small for kisses yet, but he hugs us back when we hug him, and if you lean your head close to his, he copies and gently bumps foreheads, giggling and smiling. As he grows older, I have no doubt that he’ll play games where his toys are exploded or killed or imperilled – I did the same growing up, enacting out endless games where Starscream of the Decepticons shot rockets at my collection of My Little Ponies, or orchestrating playground games where Catwoman and Batman were fighting bad guys. But that’s a far cry from the sort of thing you’re describing.

Little boys are not universally sociopaths in training: nurturing and love are not exclusively feminine traits. But that’s what they can sometimes become, if, as so many people do, you assume that boys are naturally monstrous, and consequently neglect to teach them the empathy, kindness and respect for others you’ve already decided they’re incapable of learning. And so male brutality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if boys will be boys, then why bother to teach them otherwise? Easier far to excuse their aggression with a single pat phrase, and blindly hope they don’t grow up to become rapists or abusers.

Is this really such a bad thing? Well, you could argue that if more were done to check boys’ destructive instincts we might have less war and if more were done to discourage girls’ child-rearing tendencies we might have more women in the workplace and a narrower gender pay gap.

Or you might find as I do something rather sinister and Brave-New-World-ish in this attempt at social engineering.

What if there is a sound biological reason for the way men and women are programmed to think and behave in different ways? What indeed if the future of our species depends on it?

To a degree I think it does.

If little girls didn’t have those dollyhugging instincts we would all be in a pickle because who in the future would do the mothering and who would work in all those vital caring professions from midwifery to primary school teaching and nursing?

And if little boys weren’t hardwired into being obsessive, aggressive show-offs and risk-takers, who would spend hours in the lab before making great scientific breakthroughs or drilling for oil or defending the nation?

Are you familiar with the concept of a false binary, Mr Delingpole? I somehow think not, because if you were, you’d realise you’d just answered your own question. If some boys grow up to be nurturing, then they’ll be working in those “vital caring professions” and staying at home with the children, while the little girls with the chemistry sets and athletic skills will be, as you have it, “making great scientific breakthroughs” and “defending the nation”. All that will happen is that men and women will appear in greater numbers in the sorts of professions you seem to think they’re inherently unsuited for, and it’ll all balance out. Society won’t collapse – it’ll just look different as a result of being more equitable. As always, we’re not talking about every girl completely abandoning traditionally feminine occupations or every boy settling masculine traditions aside in favour of basket-weaving – we’re talking about gender not being a determining factor in what professions they get to choose. And while we’re on the subject: what makes you think that the gender schism evident in many Western professions is so absolute, so fundamental to human nature and gender, that it applies everywhere in the world, and throughout history? That would, after all, be the logical, sane conclusion, if your claims to biological determinism were really accurate.

In fact, the opposite is true. Women have a long and significant history of making scientific breakthroughs – but thanks to the prevailing sexism of their times, men often took all the credit, leaving us with the inaccurate, distorted perception that women never really did anything important until very, very recently. Or how about this: does it interest you to know that the professions you’ve classed as being inherently gendered – “caring” professions, like primary teaching and nursing for women; serious, manly professions, like science, military service and doctoring for men – aren’t always skewed that way? Once upon a time, teaching – even primary teaching – was a male-dominated profession; only comparatively recently has it swung the other way. In Russia, most doctors are women, and thanks to the ability of sexism to devalue women’s work, whatever it is, Russian doctors are grossly underpaid, just as nurses are in the West.In Finland, 50% of doctors are women, while in the UK, female doctors are set to outnumber men by 2017 – just three years away – despite the fact that they’re still paid 25% less than their male colleagues. And this is all deeply relevant, because one of the reasons nursing has traditionally been female-dominated is because the modern profession was formally begun by a woman, Florence Nightingale. At a time when women were more or less prohibited from becoming doctors, Nightingale found a way to teach women medicine on an organised scale – but that doesn’t mean that modern nurses are any less medicine-focussed or inherently more nurturing than doctors. For both, the work is hard, technical and emotionally draining, but because nursing, despite being vital, is seen as being feminine, it continues to be undervalued and underpaid.  

As for women in the military – well. I could write you a whole different essay on that, Mr Delingpole. I could talk about the compulsory military service for women in Israelthe fact that the first female marine, Opha Mae Johnson, joined in 1918the thousands on thousands of Soviet women who served on the front line in WWII, only to be demonised and forgotten; the Night Witches; the Dahomey Amazons;  the tale of Khutulun; the large numbers of female Viking warriors archaeologists originally assumed to be male, simply because they were buried with swords (which is also what happened in the case of this Etruscan warrior prince – sorry, princess); the women serving currently in armies around the world, and you know what? I could do this all day, Mr Delingpole, but the point is that if you’re trying to argue that warfare is an inherently masculine preoccupation, such that women have only taken it up since the pernicious advent of gender-neutral parenting, feminism run amok and modern, “zappy” headmistresses, then you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks to sexism, you probably didn’t learn about it in school, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that women warriors are unnatural or rare.

Women can be arrogant risk-takers who make fantastic breakthroughs. Men can be empathic, loving caregivers. That’s not because feminism is trying desperately to upset the natural order of things – that is the natural order of things, no matter how often various cultures have tried to pretend otherwise, because human beings are not wholly defined by our gender.

This doesn’t mean that girls can’t do boy things and vice versa.

Really, Mr Delingpole? Because you seem to have expended a great deal of energy trying to argue exactly that.

Lego for example has had great success with its new specialist toy range aimed at girls, which helped drive up its profits by 35 per cent. 

But this wasn’t because Lego suddenly discovered that girls were just as interested in construction toys as boys. 

It is because – much to the annoyance of feminists – Lego cunningly designed the new range in demeaning, stereotypical sexist pinks and purples and turned the astronauts and highway patrolmen into puppies and pretty girls.

Actually, no – allow me, once again, to set the record straight. Prior to their introduction of the pink-and-purple, female-oriented Lego Friends range, Lego was already successfully selling their products to girls. As these vintage Lego ads clearly show, Lego was originally marketed a gender-neutral toy: in fact, I grew up playing with Legos, as did pretty much every other child – male and female – of my generation. But as I’ve already explained, Mr Delingpole, toy companies like their profits, and a clear way to make parents buy more Lego is to create a new kind, one that encourages them to buy two different sets – a Lego for boys, and a Lego for girls – rather than just the one, shared product. I don’t doubt that Lego Friends has found a market, likely even attracting new customers in the process, but the idea that girls weren’t playing with Lego prior to this – that they only became interested in building once they could make hairdressing salons and play with pink bricks – is demonstrably absurd, a claim debunked not only by the testimony of every girl and woman who played with the stuff before then, but by Lego’s own advertising history. This is what social engineering really looks like: a campaign to convince little girls they suddenly need a different, special type of Lego than the one they’ve always played with, because the proper stuff is for boys.

When my niece was growing up and my brother wanted to recruit her as a companion on his military re-enactment expeditions he conducted a similar successful experiment.

At first being a girl Freya just couldn’t be persuaded to care that much about war and weaponry.

Then one day my brother hit on an ingenious solution. He bought her a toy gun, painted it pink with pretty flowers down the side, called it a Barbie Gun and it became her most treasured possession.

MP Liz Truss, I gather, has two daughters so if she fancies making them a couple of Barbie guns to help them combat society’s ingrained sexism I’m sure my brother would happily send her the colour scheme.

I have no doubt that’s exactly what happened – but in all the times you’ve told this story, Mr Delingpole, have you ever stopped to wonder why? As I’ve already stated, pink isn’t an inherently girl-attracting colour, as evidenced by the fact that it’s only been marketed as girl-exclusive since the 1940s. Girls like pink because girls are trained to like pink, which is the exact same reason that boys now tend to avoid it; because literally every single thing that’s branded as being “for girls” is either pink or purple, and boys are socially punished for liking pink or feminine things. Growing up as a girl, it’s virtually impossible not to end up with a wardrobe and toybox full of pink things, even if – as was the case with me – it’s not your favourite colour. What it has undeniably become, however, is a symbol of femininity. Girls are trained to view pink as theirs, as something that cannot be taken from them. Nobody questions a girl in pink: it’s safe, and can therefore become a source of strength. Your niece didn’t have some innate, fundamental objection to toy guns simply because of her gender – she was hesitant to play a game that every single aspect of her life had told her was for boys only. But when your brother made her a girly gun, he sent her the message that guns could be girly, too, and that playing with them was therefore acceptable. He told her that guns could be for girls, not by appealing to some inherent, chromosonal attraction to the colour pink, but by manipulating the social convention that says it’s absolutely right and OK for girls to enjoy pink anything.

How do I know this? Because your niece isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve heard stories of little boys who’ve expressed a desire to own and play with ‘feminine’ toys, like dolls and ponies, when offered versions that were mocked up in dark, ‘boy’ colours, like red and black. Walk into any store that sells baby clothes, and look at the striking difference in the colour schemes: pinks and purples and pastels for girls, and lashings of red, blue, black, green and bright everything for boys. We dress our kids this way from birth, most of us without questioning it, and even before they’re walking and talking, we buy them toys that confirm to gender stereotypes, with dollies for girls and trucks for boys. We teach them that boys and girls are fundamentally different – not always with words, but absolutely with actions. Children learn from example, and they do so early, that pink means girl and blue means boy. We teach them to laugh at boys with long hair, to puzzle over little girls who like spiders and dinosaurs. On the playground, they learn gender discrimination – they police each other from day one, because that’s what adults have taught them to do, however unthinkingly. And then we get surprised, and sigh, and act as though biology alone can explain it, when some girls only feel comfortable using toy guns and building blocks that are coloured pink.

But it seems a bit of a waste of talent to me. Though I love my boy and girl equally I am in little doubt that females are manifestly the superior species in almost every way: more articulate, more empathetic, more resilient and more capable of multi-tasking.

This may come as a shock to you, Mr Delingpole, but benevolent sexism is still sexism. Saying girls are somehow fundamentally “superior” for their innate possession of various traits isn’t complimentary; it’s a covert way of praising women who conform to outdated gender stereotypes while mocking, rebuking, exclusing or demonising those who don’t. Girls aren’t made of sugar and spice and all things nice, just as boys aren’t made of slugs and snails and puppydog tails. We are human beings, just as capable as the next person, whoever they are, of being venal, arrogant, greedy, abusive, stammering, callous, single-minded and anything else you’d care to name. To impose on us the burden of being moral and social caregivers – the sweet, smiling stoics whose biological destiny is to rein in the destructive impulses of angry, aggressive, goal-oriented men – is to deny us the full range of our humanity; and more, to implicitly blame us when the men in our lives get out of control, for failing to use our feminine wiles to soothe them. Don’t limit us to the sort of roles you’re clearly unwilling to adopt yourself. Don’t put us on a pedestal we neither deserve nor want. Let us be flawed and wonderful; let us be human, and don’t think we’re being unfeminine when we dare to stray outside the bounds you’ve arbitrarily set for us.

Why would you want to steer someone like that into a boring, obsessional field such as maths, chemistry or car design? Girls deserve better than that.  

No, Mr Delingpole. Girls deserve better than to have men like you decide that they deserve better than their passions. “Boring, obsessional” fields, as you term them, are neither boring nor obsessional to those who love them, whatever their gender. Don’t presume to tell us that the “better” we deserve is to get married, knocked up and spend the rest of our lives raising children, just because you’d feel slightly more comfortable if we did. Don’t try to couch your sexism as protectionism, as though little girls everywhere need to be shielded from the scary predations of straw feminists out to turn them into truck-driving lesbians by throwing all their Barbies onto the fire. Don’t tell any more teenage girls that their ambitions are worth less than their reproductive potential. In fact, don’t say anything at all.

Just shut up, and listen, and learn. Because right now? You are the problem.

Furiously,

Foz Meadows

ETA on 25.1.14: Behold the sexist majesty of James Delingpole’s Twitter response to a woman who called this article fabulous:

James Delingpole being a sexist ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

And again, which, ew:

James Delingpole being a sexually harassing ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

Male feminists, however, are apparently “beneath contempt”:

James Delingpole anti male feminists on Twitter, 25.01.14

But it’s OK, guys! Because Delingpole isn’t really being a sexist ass – he’s just goading me:

James Delingpole goading on Twitter, 25.1.14

 

Only, no: he’s also really serious about feminists being ugly:

James Delingpole on feminists on Twitter, 25.1.14

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point - in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them - preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not too long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as a recent article so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose. 

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce,  if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone endeavoring to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what? That’s OK. Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of tut-tutting people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshitBreastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding – not just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting  or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say, not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should of course be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical, voyeuristic, judgmental audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we love boobies. Images of them are everywhere - often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate - and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the depredations of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but rather to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles. Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that permissible public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is your fucking problem, hypothetical observer! I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical voyeur has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them. So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers. 

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named because they belong to the public - which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty - including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

About a week ago, urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire wrote an excellent post in response to having been asked when, exactly, her heroines were going to be raped, because according to her interlocutor, not having that happen would be both unrealistic and disrespectful to her work. Her answer: never, for which she has rightly received an enormous amount of respect. Today, she’s followed her initial blog with a short post further clarifying her position, and which ends on the following note:

The other point I’d like to clarify is this: I’ve had a few people say that sexual violence should always be on the table simply because it’s so realistic for male villains to want to use that against female heroes. Well, in my two primary universes, I have feral pixies living in a San Francisco Safeway, and frogs with feathers. If a lack of “I will dominate you with my dick” is all that makes you think I’m being unrealistic, I want some of whatever you’re having. 

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with this argument – but it’s also worth unpacking, because there’s a lot to be said about suspension of disbelief, the fourth wall, fantasy and worldbuilding that’s massively relevant to understanding why, exactly, it holds true. On the surface, for instance, it could be read as a contradiction of one of the basic tenets of writing good SFF: that the unreal elements of a given narrative are anchored and made plausible by the presence of realistic characterisation, plotting and what we might otherwise term as real-world logic. Wizards who behave like real, complex people are infinitely more believable than wizards whose cardboard wizardliness is presented as the justification for their lack of regular human variety. With few exceptions, good characterisation matters more in SFF than any other genre, because the realism of the characters and their actions must necessarily support our belief not only in their fictional existences, but in the plausibility of other elements we know logically to be impossible.  Thus: if a given reader believes rape to be a realistic, logical inevitability under certain circumstances, then its absence from such a narrative will cause their suspension of disbelief to falter precisely because the presence of elves and unicorns isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to motive and characterisation. Even if they’re shapeshifters fighting dragon gods in space, the characters in an SFF narrative still have to read like real people.

Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: neither human behaviour nor human culture are static, immovable constants, and that means our background understanding of human society – what the reader deems to be familiar, and therefore obviously real – is far from being an inviolate, perfect yardstick of human nature. And this is where a lot of readers are tripped up by their own biases and preconceptions about how the world works: they make the mistake of assuming that because (for instance) women in the medieval period held little or no political power, it’s therefore unrealistic to envisage a fictional medieval setting populated by female powerbrokers; as though their own understanding of human culture is identical to the limits of human culture. Never mind the fact that medieval female aristocrats most certainly played at politics, and that the widespread assumption of total female helplessness prior to the modern era is based primarily on an ignorant, simplistic, mythologised view of history: particularly when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality, race and power, many readers will simply assume that unfamiliar social paradigms are by definition unrealistic paradigms, and react to their inclusion with anything from bafflement to outright hostility.

I’ll say it again: your personal understanding of human culture is not synonymous with the limits of human culture; it is not even necessarily accurate, if certain widespread forms of ignorance are anything to go by. Yes, the writer still has to convince you that their version of reality is plausible, but that’s a near-impossible task if you, the audience, have got it into your head that certain familiar patterns, actions and stereotypes are fundamentally intrinsic to human reality rather than being the arbitrary consequences of a specific history, society or culture. A failure to appreciate this fact is why so many people freaked out about Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall; why half the internet is routinely baffled by the presence of a black Guinevere in Merlin; why the presence of female cavalry in an RPG setting is apparently enough for people to call bullshit on the whole endeavour; why you have people like R. Scott Bakker saying that writing strong female characters is a ‘bootstrapping illusion’ that’s inimical to reality; why, over and over and over again, we balk at accepting fictional realities that subvert our most deeply-held cultural biases, not because they’re poorly written or badly characterised, but because we can’t get past the idea that a world where the heroine doesn’t get raped is somehow fundamentally less plausible than a world full of faeries.

Because that’s what it ultimately boils down to: that all too often, we’re only willing to accept the existence of the impossible provided it doesn’t upset our assumptions about the primacy of the familiar. That’s why sexism, racism and homophobia so often end up as narrative defaults: because we forget to see them as mutable, rather than inevitable, even when they’re things we actively disdain. Yet even if you really do believe in the impossibility of functional, real-world cultures that reject racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, or which are otherwise alien to the familiar, the original question still stands: provided they’re well-written, why should their inclusion in a narrative be any less acceptable than the presence of other impossible things, like magic and dragons? We restrict our understanding of escapism at our peril. And who knows? Many inventions that were once thought impossible had their genesis in SFF,  so why not social mores, too? To borrow a quote from Carl Sandburg, nothing happens unless first a dream - and we who defy your concept of the familiar? We are dreaming, too.

Trigger warning: predatory behaviour, creepiness, sexual assault.

Yesterday, I read this account of creepy stalking behaviour retold by a woman whose husband had witnessed it first-hand and subsequently described the incident to her in detail. During the course of her husband’s recitation, the woman asked him what she refers to as The Question, capitalised because, once asked, he stopped seeing the creeper as simply being awkward and inappropriate and started seeing him as frightening and potentially dangerous. And as I was reading, something clicked in my head regarding an incident which, approximately sixteen years ago, left me deeply unsettled, and which continues to unsettle me in memory. It’s not a story I’ve ever told more than once or twice, partly because even now, at the age of 26, I find it as difficult to articulate as I did at age 10, but mostly because, up until yesterday, I didn’t know how to convey the the thing that most bothered me about it, because when it happened, I was too young to ask The Question, and until yesterday, I hadn’t known I could ask it retrospectively. But now I can, and so I’m going to put it all on record.

I don’t remember my precise age, though ten seems the best guess: certainly, I was no older than eleven, and I doubt I was younger than eight. The occasion was a child’s birthday party – not one of my close friends, but a family friend, a son or daughter of someone from my mother’s extended social circle. The setting was a restaurant: all the adults were at a big table in the front room having a roaring party of their own, while the kids were in another out the back, with music and balloons and a trestle table against the far wall where the presents and party bags were. I remember that the kids’ room lead directly outside in two directions – one past the kitchen, one past the toilets and storage room – and that there was no direct line of sight, or indeed point of access, between the adults’ room and ours: you had to pass through a third dining room, occupied by other patrons, to get between them. I remember, too, that I was pretty much on my own: I knew the other kids, but I wasn’t great friends with any of them, and so was standing alone when one of the waiters approached me.

To my child’s perception, he was a youthful-looking adult; in memory, I’d say he was in his twenties. He was blonde and not bad-looking, but something about his eyes bothered me, and when he spoke, he addressed me by name.

“Hello, Philippa,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.”

I felt uneasy. “How do you know my name?”

I have never forgotten, nor will ever forget, the type of smile that accompanied his response. It was a wrong smile, a shark smile, a greasy smile that flicked his mouth up at the left corner and which didn’t match the intensity of his eyes, which were pale blue. His answer, too, I recall verbatim.

He said: “I read it on your lovely little lolly bag.”

And in that moment, I was frightened. I knew, with an absolute certainty, that the waiter shouldn’t have talked to me; that I needed to get as far away from him as possible. I don’t remember what I said to excuse myself, or if I even said anything at all: either way, I went straight to the room where the adults were, determined to tell someone what had happened, because over and over, when you were taught about stranger danger at school, you were told to tell an adult. I got right up next to my mother; I stood beside her chair and waited for a pause in the conversation. There must have been ten or more adults present, and all of them were laughing at something, presumably a joke. When my mother had finished laughing, she turned to me and asked me what I wanted. I opened my mouth, but all at once, my confidence failed. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know how to describe the fear I’d felt or the reason for it in a way that would make sense, or that would give the adults something to act on if I did. The waiter hadn’t done anything but talk to me. What if I was wrong? What if they laughed at me, too? What if I ruined their evening?

“Nothing,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter, because I didn’t feel safe. So strong was my fear that I left the kids’ room and spent the rest of the evening sitting just outside the back entrance to the kitchen, where I was constantly in view of the adult staff. More than once, I was asked if I wanted to go back inside, and each time I said no, I was fine, thanks for asking, I just liked being out in the air. Eventually, one of the other girls at the party came out and sat with me. We talked for a while, and when she asked why I was sitting there, I whispered in her ear that the blonde waiter made me uncomfortable, and so I was keeping away from him – and in reply, she whispered back that she felt weird around him, too. From time to time, I saw him looking at me from inside the kids’ room; he had to walk past my seat to get to and from the kitchen, too, but he didn’t try to talk to me again, presumably because we were guaranteed an audience.

I sat outside for the rest of the night, until it was time to go home. I never told any adults, and in the years since, I’ve often wondered if that was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing. My fear was certainly real, and the phrase lovely little lolly bag still strikes me as being very creepily worded. But still, what does that prove? Nothing actually happened, and apart from my own deep sense of unease, I have no evidence that I was actually in danger. What if I’d raised suspicions about someone who, though seemingly creepy to me, was ultimately harmless? But then again, what if he really had posed a threat? What if the fact that I didn’t speak up meant that, somewhere down the line, he ultimately acted against someone else? In either case, I have no way of knowing. But yesterday, I finally thought to ask The Question, which went a long way towards explaining my unease. Viz:

If the waiter learned my name from my lolly bag, how did he match it to my face?

The only answer is: he was watching me. I wasn’t the only girl at the party; he would’ve had to tell me apart from the others. And he couldn’t have just eavesdropped it, either – then as now, both my actual family and all our family friends called me Foz, and while it’s conceivably possible that one of the adults might have used my full name at some point, it’s also very unlikely given that they spent the majority of the night in a different room. Certainly, the other kids would never have called me Philippa, and in any case, even before the waiter spoke to me, I’d mostly been standing alone. And then there’s the incongruity of him talking to me at all. I’ve worked as a waitress, and when you’ve got a big party taking up two whole rooms of the restaurant plus regular customers in the third, you don’t have time to stop and talk to children. But this man did, and even though it’s taken the power of hindsight for me to understand exactly how odd it all was, my instincts at the time still screamed at me that something was amiss.

There’s a poisonous double standard in our society which says that it’s reverse-sexist and wrong for women to feel threatened by creepy-awkward male behaviour because our fear implies that we hold the negative, stereotypical view that All Men Are Predators, but that if we’re raped or sexually assaulted by any man with whom we’ve had prior social interaction – and particularly if he’s expressed some sexual or romantic interest in us during that time – it’s reasonable for observers to ask what precautions we took to prevent the assault from happening, or to suggest that we maybe led the guy on by not stating our feelings plainly. The result is a situation where women are punished if we reject, avoid or identify creepy men, and then told it’s our fault if we’re assaulted by someone we plainly ought to have rejected, avoided, identified.

And sometimes, even our rejections are ignored. Here’s another story: when I was twelve or thirteen, a boy at my high school developed a crush on me. He asked me out; I said no. He asked me out again; I still said no. One would think that my feelings had been made abundantly clear by this point, but apparently not: his next step was to follow me around every lunch and recess for over a week declaring that he loved me. During this time, I told him repeatedly to fuck off, go away, I didn’t like him, he was making me uncomfortable; on multiple occasions when he came too close, I even resorted to physically shoving him back. When that still didn’t work, I started running away, literally running, right to the other side of the campus if need be; he wasn’t fast enough to follow in the moment, so he started sending messengers after me, other boys who, amused by the absurdity of the situation, thought it was great fun to track me down, wherever I was, and tell me that this boy loved me, and wouldn’t I come and speak to him, go out with him? So then I had to hide from them, too: the only place I was safe was the girl’s toilets, where they were forbidden to go. At one point, a pair of senior girls saw me loitering by the sink and asked what I was doing; I had to explain that I was being chased by boys, and this was the only place I could hide from them. The situation finally came to a head when some other boys were alerted to my harassment by my female friends, and joined our group one day as a sort of protection detail: when the boy who liked me showed up and started professing his love, two of them physically attacked him – a few hard shoves and punches – and warned him to stay away.

He listened to them.

I’ve written before about my brush with sexual assault at university; two incidents which, despite leaving me unscathed, nonetheless serve as reinforcement for the idea that persistence in matters of sex and romance, even once the girl has said no, are considered a male prerogative in our culture. Indeed, the idea of ‘winning the girl’ – of overcoming female objections or resistance through repeated and frequently escalating efforts – is central to most of our modern romantic narratives. (Female persistence, by contrast, is viewed as pathetic.) And the more I think about instances of creepiness, harassment and stalking that culminate in either the threat or actuality of sexual assault, the more I’m convinced that a massive part of the problem is this socially sanctioned idea that men are fundamentally entitled to persist. Because if men are meant to persist, then women who say no must only be rejecting the attempt, not the man himself, so that every separate attempt becomes one of a potentially infinite number of keys which might just fit the lock of the woman’s approval. She’s not the one who’s allowed to say no, not really; she should be silent and passive as a locked door, waiting patiently while the man runs through however many keys he can be bothered trying. And if he gets sick of this lengthy process and just breaks in? Well, frustration under those circumstances is only natural. Either the door shouldn’t have been there to impede him, or it shouldn’t have been locked.

We tell children – and particularly young girls – to beware of creepy adult behaviour; to identify, report and avoid it. But at some point during adolescence, the message becomes reversed: if you’re old enough to consent, the logic seems to go, then suddenly you’re old enough that being too scared to say no, or having your no ignored, is your fault rather than your assailant’s. When adults behave creepily towards children, our first priority is to ascertain whether a threat is posed, because we’d rather call them out for their inappropriateness than risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly in instances where the child is visibly upset. Certainly, if a child ever came to you and said they didn’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular adult, you’d treat it as a very serious matter. And yet we don’t extend the same logic to people who behave creepily towards other adults – partly and very reasonably, it must be said, because adults are better able to defend themselves than children, and because, on the sexual side of things, children literally cannot consent to anything, whereas one adult propositioning another is not morally repugnant in and of itself, regardless of how creepily they choose to go about it.

But surely the threat of sexual assault is still legitimate and grave enough that it’s better to call someone out for being inappropriate and creepy than to risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly when the subject of their behaviour is visibly upset? Surely if a friend or colleague comes to you and says they don’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular person, this too is a serious matter? Because even if that person has the best of intentions, poses no threat and doesn’t mean to be creepy, the fact remains that they are still making someone uncomfortable, and that’s definitely worth addressing. As the excellent John Scalzi points out, you don’t get to define someone else’s comfort level with you: sure, it might suck that someone thinks you’re being creepy, but your hurt feelings at that verdict are ultimately less important than whether or not the other person feels safe. If you persist in bothering someone after they’ve made it clear they don’t like you, or in treating them in a manner to which they object simply because you, personally, see nothing wrong with it, then you are being an asshat: you are saying that their actual fear and discomfort are less important that your right to behave in a way that makes them afraid and discomforted, and if that’s the case, then why the hell shouldn’t they call you out?

I’ll never know if the waiter represented a genuine threat to me, or if he was simply creepy and harmless. But my fear was real, and that alone is enough to convince me that his behaviour, whatever his intentions, was inappropriate. Because ultimately, good intentions aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card; you can’t use them to debunk accusations of creepiness any more than writers can use them to handwave accusations of having created racist or misogynist stories. Intention is not the same as effect, and if someone asks a question – The Question – to which you have no reasonable answer, then prepare to admit that you might be in the wrong.