Since living as female, I’ve gotten rid of my slight hesitance to identify as feminist and even started to get really into it.
Is it any surprise, really, that living as a different sex would give you some interesting perspective shifts? For me, the biggest one has been that women really are treated as below men in society.
It’s easy to miss that when you’re a man. It seems like things are set up for you to miss that. Most of society’s status quo goes unchallenged and feminists are hedged into a little box labelled “radicals” and “extremists”. It’s easy to miss the message or get a mangled, distorted version which is only too easy to ignore.
Or, you can vaguely accept the precepts of feminism without being shaken awake and truly choosing to live differently, which is what happened to me.
Trigger warning for this section: explicit misogyny
I was sucked into the Seduction Community when I was a teenager and for a while believed their neo-conservative brainwashing. They go on about how feminism ruined women* and how women are actually naturally suited to the gender roles feminism had broken down** all the while somehow managing to paint themselves as victims.
Their credibility goes down the further back in time you go. Maybe you could make an argument in favour of a more feminine woman who doesn’t worry about being un-feminist just because she’s wearing a lacy dress, but I find it hard to imagine anyone could try to advocate for taking away women’s right to vote or make it legal to beat your wife again.
I wonder how many of those people would have argued for such a thing if they thought they’d be listened to. A lot of their talk led in that direction (men should be the head of the household, making serious decisions is the realm of the masculine, women should think about getting a man and caring for a family) but they stopped short of saying women shouldn’t vote. I guess they either didn’t think that far or didn’t want to disgrace themselves in the eyes of more moderate people.
Pretty much anyone can agree feminism was necessary. But with some major political battles won, some people would rather think that feminism isn’t necessary anymore or just ignore its continued importance.
*I actually agree with the arguments against prescriptive feminism which pushes women and men to be more androgynous; I think everyone should have the right to choose their gender expression. But these arguments coming from the Seduction Community were a strawman, letting them appear as if they were taking down the entire feminist movement when in fact their valid criticisms were going towards only one opinion of a subset of the feminist movement. Also, rather than advocating for freedom of expression, they advocated for prescriptivism in the opposite direction – mandatory gender-conformist expression.
**The arguments again had some validity (why not let women be full-time mothers if they want to be, without coercion?) but the conclusions they made were entirely off (all women should look forward to a motherhood role as their primary dream in life. …How they expected to also pick up these women for casual sex and not have them demand something more is a mystery).
I shook off my anti-feminist brainwashing but, for a long time, I remained in that place where you don’t face up to the situation of women in the world, just because it is more comfortable not to. I think I decided to identify as feminist a year or so before living as female, though I didn’t get much more committal than that.
When I started living as female though, and even started passing as female some of the time, that changed pretty fast. I experienced first-hand what had previously been vague and seemingly unimportant, forcibly confronting my previous refusal to commit.
So, with my new perspective, let me now present a low-down of ways in which women still need to demand their rights:
To illustrate I’d like to post the experience of Ben Barres (you can read the full article here):
After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”
And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.”
“By far,” Barres wrote, “the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect” than when he was a woman. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
It’s not just in academics but in a whole lot of other areas where men are taken more seriously than women. Any place where men outnumber women dozens to one (politics, construction, law, the upper ranks of business) is a place where you know people were hired based on prejudice.
But it’s not just hiring. In an environment where everyone secretly assumes you’re going to be inferior, you just don’t feel welcome. Someone who wants to fight against that has to be very determined. Everything they do in such an environment is going to be pushing against the tide. In reality, I think a combination of this and a woman’s own socially conditioned prejudice against herself means that she just doesn’t attempt to get hired. Not everyone has the determination or clarity of purpose to do battle like this.
And they shouldn’t have to.
I find it interesting that some ignored voice coming from my previous anti-feminist self objects to that phrase. “That’s just a feminazi cliché!” it suggests. I wonder if other people brush the phrase away in the same way. Certainly it’s well known, but it’s true today as it ever was.
Women are objectified – made into objects. Do you know what this means? It means they are seen as not humans but commodities.
Not by all men and not all the time – but insidiously and ubiquitously.
On the street, women are subject to gawking, catcalls, propositions, harassment and sometimes worse. I’ve experienced this myself and I can tell you it’s not fun. (If you need convincing, here’s a comic that I think illustrates it perfectly).
Even when a man’s attention is supposedly in the form of a compliment, it doesn’t feel good. A man might call a woman “hot” on the street, but the hidden message behind that is:
1. I care nothing about you except that you are hot
2. I desire you, a person who is nothing but a hot body to me
3. If I could, I’d use you like the hot object you are.
It’s a subtle thing, but the words men say to women on the street carry the hint of a threat.
I can say this with absolute certainty because I’ve seen where that initial attention leads to. Catcalls can turn into attempts to chat you up. (An invasion of privacy and scary because of the context – you don’t know the men who are chatting you up, and what their intentions are). Attempts to chat you up can turn to sexual harassment.
All of these things, I’ve experienced in my short time living as a woman. In fact, it was only during about two months that I did everything I could to pass as a woman; nowadays I’m more relaxed about it and I think people usually see that I’m trans quite quickly. In just those two months, I experienced dozens of catcalls, quite a few men attempting to chat me up and sometimes doing creepy stuff like following me about, and one person who groped me quite heavily after trying to chat me up.
Sexual harassment is not the worst they can do, of course. And having seen how one thing leads to another, I know – thankfully without having had to experience it – that rape is part and parcel of the culture of objectification.
Objectification says that a woman’s body is not her own. It says that it is right for a man to do what he wants with it. It says that it is not the woman herself who determines that she won’t be used by men – it is her boyfriend, her father, or society and its restrictions against harassment. If no-one protects her, then she’s ripe for the picking.
That’s the hidden message of catcalls: “I want to own you and use you.”
That’s why being objectified is a problem. That’s why feminists have an issue with the way women are portrayed or with innocent “compliments”. It’s because these are part of a larger problem, part the same thing that gives rise to rape and other forms of sexual violence.
According to this study.
Everything I’ve talked about above explains why rape is a feminist issue and not just a case of random violence. Our culture makes rape possible by explicit double-standards in how people see and treat each gender. Changing our culture – a legitimate and practical goal for feminism – could save billions of people from incredible suffering.
What I never knew before living as a woman was how ever-present is the consciousness that you could get sexually assaulted. Walking down the street alone doesn’t have the same meaning as a woman as for a man.
Living as a man, I knew rape existed. But I never knew that rape and the threat of rape shaped so many lives as it does.
Slowly after shedding my anti-feminist brainwashing I came to see just how many of my friends had been raped. I heard stories from one after another. I was shocked as these stories built up. It was only after starting to live as a woman, though, that I really came to terms with it.
It’s not talked about in the media. It’s not part of popular consciousness. You don’t see Hollywood movies where the plot centres around a woman recovering from a rape experience. Your own friends often don’t admit it, or keep talk about it to a minimum (I’m not blaming them for this, by the way, just observing). It’s there but hidden in plain sight.
Somehow, for a man, such a huge, world-shaking thing is possible to just ignore. I never realised it was such a big thing. It existed but was just not important for me.
But a woman can’t ignore it. The threat of sexual violence is a part of her life.
I can illustrate this one with a story.
One day I was playing a card game. It was a set of specially made cards, each card with an image of a person on it.
I was looking at one, and then had the thought, “Oh! It’s a woman.”
Moments later, it struck me how weird this thought was. I would never have said “Oh! It’s a man.” Somehow manhood in society is just default. It’s only when someone is a woman that it’s worth remarking on.
You can see this in tokenism in movies. All of the important characters are usually men… and then there is the woman. There is a smart character, a strong character, a wily character… and a female character. “Female” is seen as a defining trait, rather than just incidental to the character’s personhood. If you need more convincing on this, I recommend watching these two videos by Feminist Frequency: The Smurfette Principle and The Bechdel Test.
Or think of the term “mankind”. It is supposed to represent all people, except that it is basically equating people with men. This is a common pattern in languages; for instance in Spanish, mixed groups are given adjectives with the male suffix, as if the females in the group were somehow subsumed by the presence of maleness.
All this adds up to the overall sensation that women are less important, somehow not ever the protagonists of the human story – which is exactly what patriarchal thinking would have you believe.
As I began to think of myself as a woman, I struggled with this; struggled with the belief that I couldn’t be as important, as much of a protagonist, while being what I thought was a “woman”. I felt like I needed to not stand out too much, not shine to much, to be inconsequential.
I needed to break right down my ideas of womanhood before I could become comfortable seeing myself as one.
And I was lucky; I was brought up to have male self-esteem, which must have made it easier to break down these parts of female conditioning. Those who are taught they are to be secondary from a young age must have a much harder time breaking free, and that’s if if they do so at all.
So this is what I want for women:
***There may be a few slight biological differences in ability in some tasks, but overwhelmingly any talk of men being better than women at such and such a thing is rooted in misogyny. Even talk about women being better at certain things serves to pigeonhole them into roles and then legitimise talk of men’s superiority in the important things.
I also think that men have things to fight for. I think they should fight for their right to be sensitive, to have emotions, to be able to be seen spending time on their appearance, to be treated as gently as women can expect to be treated – e.g. as with “women and children first” being saved from a sinking ship, or to a lesser extent being treated roughly or insulted by others cause “they’re a man, they can take it”. They should demand not be constantly reminded to “be a man” and have to prove themselves as a man. I think men shouldn’t be encouraged to be rough, misogynistic and aggressive.
I think men shouldn’t fear to show warmth and affection to each other and then be labelled as “gay” (like that was an insult). I think gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men should not have to worry about much more fear and ostracism than women who like women.
And I think the 15% of men who are estimated to crossdress should be able to do it in public without being ostracised. In fact, I think we need more men’s clothes that are lacy and soft and sweet, and a culture that supports men in wearing them. How much less violence could we expect if men were encouraged to show their cute, soft side, rather than put on a constant facade of invulnerability?
But these issues shouldn’t be used as a red herring or misdirection argument to disregard feminism. Feminism is real and necessary above and beyond men’s rights because women are given an inferior place in society. Men’s issues often in fact involve suffering that comes from the unnatural structures designed to maintain men’s power over women. Even when they don’t, they are not on the same scale. Women being accorded less dignity than men, less ability, and no right to decide what to do with their bodies – that, that is worth making a big deal about.
It’s worth shouting from the rooftops. It’s worth dedicating your life to fight for, and many have. How many men have felt the need to dedicate their lives to fighting for men’s issues? Not so many, and negligibly few if you take into account that most “men’s rights” activists are really neo-conservative anti-feminists who don’t really want a better culture for both men and women, they just want their old privilege back.
Feminism is important. It matters. It matters in a way men’s issues can’t matter.
It matters for everyone who wants the world to be a better place. It matters for any man who wants to think of himself as compassionate or honourable or who wants to connect with women as equals. And of course it matters for any woman who wants to live in safety, freedom, justice and dignity.
It’s my hope that this article will change the way you see things and inspire a new course of action in you. How will you live, now that you know in feelings and specifics rather than vague generalities how women experience oppression? How will you talk to others, what causes will you support or remove your support from? Who will you vote for? What products will you buy, what media will you consume?
If you let this information go by without changing how you act, you haven’t really absorbed it. This needs action. People need to start living like they knew what was happening to women in this world.
I’d feel a little indignant… to say the least. Wouldn’t you?