Thursday, 30 August 2012

The night time worries of the Y chromosome

It would seem that we reached an important milestone in gender equality last week: August 24, 2012 marked the first time that a trite feminine platitude became important enough to write a New York Times opinion piece about. Or, at least, it marked the first time I became aware of a New York Times opinion piece inspired by a trite feminine platitude, which in my selfish little universe is basically the same thing. I refer, of course, to “Men,who needs them?”, by biology and criminal justice man dude Greg Hampikin: an intriguing piece of literature sent to me as faux pacification after I went on a Caitlin Moran related reading strike of all poorly-thought-out woman-related media* (more on that in a few days). The big controversy raised here is that the answer to “Who needs men” may in fact be “not babies”, an answer which, as controversies go, seems a bit surreal given the way gender stereotyping has traditionally divvied up the whole childcare business anyway. In other news, it turns out that pears may not be necessary to the process of cider making! There, I just turned thousands of years of human history and the brewing traditions of charmingly-accented western folk on their head. I think I’ll reward myself with some of this new-fangled apple cider.

I am being disingenuous of course. It’s not yet possible to write an article as glaringly superfluous to the human condition as “Women are better than men at growing small humans and feeding them milk!” But it does seem like this, and the existence of sperm banks, and an apparent lack of ideas about what fathers might do that might complement the whole physical baby-farming business, is supposed to lead to a sense of futility about the entire male gender. A large portion of this is based on the absence of men in what must be the ultimate anti-choice fable about the origins of life: our identity apparently begins not at conception or even at ovulation, but at the formation of our ovum inside our mother’s foetus. That’s right, you were once inside two reproductive systems at once, like a little unicellular Matryoshka doll. Then you came out of one vagina, hung out in an ovary for a while, went on a rocking waterslide for a couple of days, possibly saw an enormous penis which is even now the root of many of your subconscious insecurities** and then you met a sperm which, for the purposes of this story, was not very relevant because men are not very relevant. After that complete non-event, you ruined your mother’s body, came out of another vagina, ruined your mother’s body some more, and that’s the end of all meaningful stories about where babies come from. I’m so glad a New York Times sanctioned biologist was around to share this profound origin story with me!

To be fair, I think Hampikin’s only fundamental flaw is that he fails to situate this narrative of the human condition in its natural home: in the kind of pseudo-profound metaphysical worries one gets at 3am when you accidentally make yourself a non-decaf coffee before bed and then discovered your pillows have, to all intents and purposes, been replaced with sandbags. For instance:

“What is my purpose in life? Should I have been born? What if I hadn’t been born? Will I find love? Will I be reincarnated? Was I reincarnated before? Did I find love when I was reincarnated before? What if I am supposed to find love with the same person I was in love with before I was reincarnated, but then he was really bad and got reincarnated as a jellyfish? Or a dragonfly? And then maybe I will be a jellyfish when he’s back to being a man and we’ll never meet again. Or wait- what if he never got born? Maybe he’s sentient somewhere as a gamete, but unable to find me! What if the person I am supposed to find eternal reincarnating love with is trapped in an ovary????”

 When I consider that the likes of Greg Hampikin have to contend with “What if men are less biologically necessary to the continuation of the human race than women?” on top of all that nonsense, I do have to wonder how men manage to sleep at all.

A skim of the article’s comments shows that this is serious threat to certain invidivuals’ masculinity- perhaps the social construction of male-as-first-sex might not be completely justified from nature? Hampikin doesn’t offer any alternatives to sperm in terms of fertilisation, thus saving the male organism from complete obsolescence, but it seems it genuinely is jarring for anybody who isn't accustomed to being referred to as “the weaker sex” or “the second sex” or “the fairer sex” to suddenly confront even the theoretical notion that they might be… “The extra sex”. “The questionably relevant sex.” “The sex which just needs to wank in a cup (and technically not even that but let’s not push this too far).” Suddenly, thanks to the night time worries of a biologist with a Y Chromosome (and True Feminist Ally) the really obvious truth that men don’t grow babies inside them has become a deeply subversive issue at the heart of gender relations! Again, I am blown away by this novel and profound conclusion. I can just hear the machine of gender discrimination grinding into reverse with this bombshell- we’ll be writing World Bank reports on male infanticide and missing men before the decade’s out.

Mocking male egos is a cheap shot, however, especially when the egos in question are those of people who habitually comment on online news opinion pieces. The interesting thing about the whole thing is, for an article that is ostensibly about child-rearing, this article has nothing whatsoever to do with child-rearing. It’s true that babies have to come from somewhere in order to be reared, and the storks are probably all busy catching fish and sitting on stork eggs or whatever it is storks do when they’re not posing for “you just had a baby!” greeting cards. I can’t help but note, however, that I’ve got two parents who are both very important in my life, who have done a little more in the past twenty-four years than just contribute genetic material and ensure I got born. My memory is a little hazy on some of the details, but I distinctly remember some passing on of important life skills happening there. Learning to walk and talk and read and ride bicycles and do cross stitch and scuba dive, for instance. Some assistance in getting nutrients and resources. General love and encouragement as well, that sort of thing. In fact, the only thing not provided by a parent is practically the only post-womb activity the article mentions- a long-running supply of breast milk. I’m sure this oversight was second only to the pre-conception penis exposure in irrevocably scarring my poor infant psyche. I have been, in both the traditional and the important senses, very lucky- traditionally because I was raised by my two direct antecedents, who still spend a statistically significant amount of time living under the same roof and have been married 26 years today (go parents!), and importantly because I got to spend my childhood being looked after by loving adults, who were interested in raising children, in a secure environment.

And that’s where this whole 3am-male-irrelevance-nightmare seems to miss the point in quite an important way. Sure, the production of babies requires more direct involvement from females than males, but as a conception of parental responsibility that’s a starting point at best. Human reproduction needs men because human children are rubbish an incapable and need responsible adults to stop them from falling off mountains or getting eaten by wolves. And aside from the semi-necessary involvement of women in breastfeeding there is nothing to stop these all-important caretakers from being men. In fact, As A Feminist I’d say it’d be positively encouraged! Perhaps it could even help us poor woman people to collectively move on from the whole work/child/”supermum”/double burden business that keeps popping up and confusing us and making stupid people question if "feminism has gone too far?" now that women have to make life choices. Which then keeps me and my X chromosomes up at night: not worrying if feminism has gone too far, but worrying about how exactly I am going to be able to convey to the people talking about it just how stupid and misguided and utterly ridiculous they are.

Of course, there’s far more to this whole child-having business than I can realistically cover here (which is probably why it's consumed rather a lot of humanity's collective energy for a very long time). For instance, I am dimly aware of (and Hampikin briefly alludes to) swathes of sociological research on whether one’s caretaker humans should indeed be those all important direct antecedents, or whether being raised by four men, a non-binary femme and a talking mongoose would have the same impact. There’s also the matter of how society differentiates between mothers and fathers: paternity leave and custody laws and a whole host of issues which, bizarrely, are a prime stomping ground for that wonderful beast, the Men’s Rights Activist- the kind of charming gentlemen who tend to concern themselves more with finding submissive women to give them blowjobs without expecting reciprocation than fighting for the right to blow noses and change nappies. I’m going to leave ideal family structure to the experts and MRAs for another time, however, and finish with a plea for us all to think about the real victims in all this: unfertilised ova people. Having to live for 10-50 years in a cramped ovary, seeing two vaginas but both of women related to you and from the wrong side, and they don’t even get to be a fully chromosomed person at the end of it! Now there’s a thought that can truly cross gender boundaries and keep us all awake at night.


*The astute reader will note this is an excellent justification of my lack of proofreading. It’s always good when one can disguise ones laziness with “principles”.

**  NOTE FOR BIOLOGICAL ACCURACY: You never saw this penis. It was on the other side of the cervix to you. But Freud never let little problems like realistic female biology get in the way of his psychological theories, and neither shall I.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

“Don’t cross me, or I’ll loose the Beast that’s kennelled here”- Lysistrata and Togo

I awoke yesterday to two notable occurrences. The first was that I was back, at least for a week, in my parents’ home in rural Cambridgeshire (or “The Shire” as we hip non-London youngsters tend to call our respective counties of origin- so ironic! So amusing!). I’d spent the previous week on Zakynthos, on a family holiday for the first time in 8 years, so the lack of 30 degree morning heat and the prospect of spending an entire day without going anywhere near salt water was a pretty depressing thing to wake up to. The second was that a friend of mine had sent me an article about the women of Togo, who have gone on a week-long sex strike to pressure their husbands into pushing for political change- including the resignation of Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbe. What, As A Feminist, did I make of this?

Well, having one of the best educations that money didn’t buy, and keeping as I do some very erudite company, my first thought was of course to go “Oh my god, this is just like that Ancient Greek play I heard about once with the boners!”* A Google search (with Safesearch on) of “Greek play with boners” informed me that the title I was looking for was “Lysistrata”, an Aristophanes comedy about… well, about men with boners. And women on sex strike. Just like in Togo!

I duly responded to the e-mail with my As A Feminist thoughts as well as my new As A Smarmy Git classical Greek literature namedrop. I think it’s a product of some of the other stuff I’ve been reading recently that, after the “ooh, ancient Greece!” thought, my thoughts ran to worries about the potential for gender-based violence and whether spousal rape is recognised in Togo (answer: nope). Thus far, coverage of the Togo sex strike has focused on the call to strike, rather than the response from women. Perhaps the lack of legal protection will affect the number of women who feel they can safely participate? (Answer: probably.) In which case, the action becomes a rather limited and symbolic one by women at the top (who, to be fair, are more likely to have husbands capable of pushing for political change anyway); or, if widespread, it turns the action into something rather more complex and meaningful than just withholding a week’s worth of sexytimes. My friend was more interested in the implications of using gender relations for political purposes, suggesting that “whatever works” is probably acceptable in this case- and I think we were both a little bemused by the implication that a week without sex could be an unendurable hardship for a man.

But aside from these, the standard As A Feminist concerns about male entitlement and objectification of women and all that jazz, something else was bothering me about the women of Togo’s sex strike. Having covered the politics of Togo for a class assignment last semester, I am probably more informed than the average person about the politics of this small African country- which is to say, I know next to nothing, rather than nothing. So it didn’t really surprise me that there wasn’t much specificity about the Togolese political situation in the article I was sent, or in any of the ones I looked up afterwards- the general story is that Togo under the Gnassingbes (Gnassingbe senior, or Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruled through various coups and “elections” from 1967 until his death in 2005, and his son Faure Gnassingbe has been president since then) has been getting progressively less successful, and the awesomely named “Let’s Save Togo” coalition have had enough of that sort of thing. So, no sex until it’s sorted out (as long as it’s sorted out in a week). The initial article had several quotes from Isabelle Ameganvi, the leader of “Let’s Save Togo”’s women’s wing, explaining how the strike would help women to combat the political problems which they all-too-often bore the brunt of. But I still felt there was something in this I wasn’t quite grasping.

Perhaps, I thought, the answer lay in Aristophanes. The wonders of modern technology meant that I could get a free copy of Lysistrata direct to my Kindle with about a minute (and that’s including time to fiddle with the Wifi settings, which were apparently still in (modern) Greek Mode), although unfortunately free books which have been translated tend to translations old enough to be out of copyright themselves, and therefore subject to the inexplicable literary whims of stupid Victorians. In this case, all Spartan dialogue had been translated into thick Scottish dialect, which means that the following literary analysis will have nothing to do with anything the Spartans said.

I don’t know what I was expecting from my first ancient greek play, but Lysistrata was a pleasant surprise in that it was both short and absolutely choc-full of references to genitalia. It is about an Athenian woman, Lysistrata, who has called together representatives of all the other women of Greece. Unfortunately, aside from her BFF Calonice, nobody has turned up- because it is hard for women to get dressed in the dark, apparently. Also they may be too busy having sex. Lysistrata and Calonice proceed to discuss dongs, then everyone else rocks up and Lysistrata proceeds to explain her foolproof plan to stop the cities of Greece from warring- the women are going to stop having sex until their menfolk get it together and sign a peace treaty.

The other women are horrified! How can they possibly give up sex, even for causes as lofty as peace, unity and making men look stupid (good to see this important feminist cause represented even in ancient Greece)? It is only after a lot of persuasion that everyone agrees- they will all get dressed up and sit around looking beautiful, then refuse to give it up. The possibility of rape is discussed- Lysistrata says that women should give in to force, but lie absolutely still and look bored so that men don’t get any enjoyment either. And absolutely no doggy-style (or, rather, “lion style”. Rawr.) Incidentally, the woman-to-woman dialogue in this is some of the worst I’ve seen since I had the misfortune of watching “Showgirls” a couple of years back- luckily, there’s no more significant man-free scenes after this.

The rest of the play concerns the chaste sufferings of both the men and the women of Greece; the women, holed up in some building or other to give each other strength in solidarity, start defecting one by one to go home and “spin their flax” (whatever that means), whilst the men all have to modify their clothes to hide their enormous hard-ons. A lot of the dialogue happens between two choruses, the “old men” and the “women”, where the women make, to the modern eye, quite reasonable demands to be respected based on their knowledge of homemaking and child rearing , and the old men call them idiots and sluts (sound familiar?) In the end, the men are dragged by their boners (metaphorically and literally!) to the negotiating table, where they discuss their desire to stop warring and go to “plough their fields”. Then everybody gets drunk, the men get back in charge and presumably a lot of babies are born approximately 9 months later. Incidentally, the duration of the Lysistrata sex strike is also given as just over a week.

It goes without saying that Lysistrata is more overtly sexual than any highbrow news account of an African political event- it is, after all, a play about boners. But what’s surprising is the way that female sexuality is portrayed- or ignored. In ancient Athens, women were not seen as capable of the same levels of self-control as men, and are therefore characterised by wanting sex more- the great female victory of the play is that enough women are able to hold out long enough for the men to give in. The sex strike is about abstaining, not withholding- control of men is never assured, because women’s self-control is being called into question.

Reports about Togo, on the other hand, don’t seem interested in the sexuality of the women in their story. Isabelle Ameganvi, whose picture regularly appears, is a fat, middle aged, traditionally dressed African woman- not the kind of person to whom we are accustomed to attributing an autonomous sex drive. This is what is missing from the story, for me- an acknowledgement that the women of Togo are not just disgruntled suppliers erecting (ahem) a picket line in front of their vaginas, but people making choices which are motivated in part by the same sexual instincts they are seeking to manipulate.

Missing, that is, with one exception: a quote from participant Abla Tamakoe, who says: “For me, it's like fasting, and unless you fast, you will not get what you want from God.” Not quite the bawdy lament of Aristophanes’ women, but an acknowledgement of loss nonetheless. Women’s sexuality might be absent from the story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there in reality.


*In fact, I didn’t get this knowledge from my (explicitly classics-free) education OR my cool friends. I’m pretty sure I was told about it by some pretentious person at an “educate the plebs” week at Eton that my school sent me on back when I was still young and impressed by pretentious people. Although I suppose all she ever explained to me was “it’s about Greek men who all have boners!” so she can’t have been that pretentious.

**Speaking of! When I googled Lysistrata Togo, one of the first results that came up was from the Daily Mail of all places. Some fellow with a beard he probably draws on in felt tip every morning had used the parallels between the cases to argue for classics in schools, because the main barrier for the average British person to understand the politics of Togo is that they have not read enough Greek comedy. Nothing to do with the fact that 99% of people probably don’t even know what continent Togo is on- it’s definitely about Latin in schools.