Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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Dealing with the tough stuff: The value of noticing

This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.

I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.

I would summarise the process something like this:

Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging

The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.

Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.

glasses

Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.

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Open Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of openness to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: relationship conflict and abusive relationships are touched on briefly in this post.

A decade ago I started studying three topics that have pretty much defined my career: open non-monogamy, BDSM, and bisexuality. I just checked my CV and found that my first academic publication in these areas came out in 2004: an interview with the ever-fabulous Jen Yockney of Bi Community News for the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review (now appropriately renamed the Psychology of Sexualities Review). That was quickly followed by an interview, in the same publication, with the equally wonderful Dossie Easton, about her writing on kink and polyamory.

MegJenNo10

Me and Jen Yockney more recently

It’d taken me six years since finishing my PhD to start researching these topics. My first paper based on my PhD (on a different topic) had been rejected with cruel comments from one reviewer. So I decided that academic research wasn’t for me and to focus on teaching, which I really enjoyed. I still have major issues with that side of academia. But then I started to read about gender and sexuality for my teaching, and to attend more interdisciplinary conferences. I realised that it was possible – perhaps even beneficial – to research topics that were personally relevant.

Although I can’t say that this guiding principle has made for a completely easy ride (to say the least!), I have learnt a huge amount from researching polyamorous, BDSM, and bi communities. My work has always been led by the question of what we (i.e. everybody) can learn from such communities, rather than the more traditional psychological question of how they can be explained. The answers I’ve explored have focused on the benefits of more open approaches to relationships rules around monogamy, the consensual arrangements that kinky folk use in their sexual activities, and non-binary understandings of sexual attraction (i.e. not just attraction to either ‘the same’ or ‘the opposite’ gender).

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the directions that my thinking about relationships has taken in the last few years. I realised that these themes of openness, consent, and non-binary are still very present, but in different forms. Previously I’d just thought of openness in the context of non-monogamy, consent in the context of (kinky) sex, and non-binary in the context of sexuality.

I thought I’d write a couple of blog posts to explain the ways in which my thinking has expanded out lately, considering the benefits of applying openness and consent to our relationships in a much broader way. Regarding non-binary I have a much longer piece of writing bubbling away about what happens when we apply this concept beyond sexuality and gender to our ways of relating, feeling, and thinking.

I’ll spend the rest of this post on openness.

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Collaborative approaches to conflict

Yesterday I ran some training on relationship therapy for counsellors which involved exploring various different approaches and techniques. I was reminded of a chapter that I’ve found particularly helpful in this area, which I gave out to the students. Re-reading the chapter I realised that it says something a lot more profound than I originally realised. I thought it would be useful to summarise it here and draw out some implications: both for intimate relationship difficulties and more for conflict more widely.

Collaborative relationship therapy

The approach is the ‘collaborative couple therapy’ of Daniel B. Wile, a US therapist. You can read all about it on Dan’s website here. Personally I prefer the term ‘relationship therapy’ to ‘couple therapy’ as it recognises that not all relationships are couple relationships.

Dan’s first idea is that the aim, in relationship therapy, should be to ‘solve the moment, not the problem’. This takes the pressure off trying to fix the whole – often seemingly overwhelming – difficulty that people are having. Instead, the emphasis is placed on addressing each interaction that comes up as something that can be ‘solved’, or engaged with more helpfully. Dan shares my view that conflict isn’t a problem in relationships: it is inevitable, and it can be helpful depending on how we engage with it.

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Only Connect: Some personal thoughts on the importance of connection

This is more of a personal post than most that I write but I’m including it here rather than in the offline journal where I write more self-focused reflections. This is because I thought that it might contain some useful ideas for other people too – either about the topic of connection or about reflecting on our values and what we have to offer. However it is very much a work in progress and I hope that any readers will take it as such.

Yesterday I attended a retreat day run by my friend and great writer-activist-teacher-academic Jamie Heckert. It felt good to take some time out for yoga, meditation and relaxation with a bunch of other people who work in similar areas.

In true Jamie style at one point in the day he invited us to ponder the question ‘if you were a cell in the cosmic body, what would your role or function be?’ The word that quickly occurred to me was ‘connection’. To put it in bodily terms I guess the metaphor would be the kind of cell that connects other cells together, and hopefully in a way that is beneficial to them and to the wider system.

Reflecting on it today I came up with several ways in which this connection theme is important to me. They might resonate with other people too, or it might be more that this process – on reflecting on the roles that we can fulfil – is a helpful one for other people to ponder.

I’m reminded of ideas in existential psychotherapy that we might regard a ‘good life’ as one in which we recognise our particular capabilities and find ways to fit them to the word around us. Unlike some existential philosophers I don’t believe that we are given a particular meaning or purpose to our life in some mystical way, but I do believe that we develop certain meanings and values for ourselves in conversation with the world and people around us. And it can be useful to reflect on how much the ways in which we live our lives are aligned with those meanings and values.

Of course such alignment is something that is far more possible for some people than for others, and I am extremely fortunate that I’m able to align my life with my values in both my paid work and my personal life. This is a point that I’ll return to towards the end.

Anyway, back to connection. These were my thoughts:

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Compassion all round? A little story about Elan & Diane

When I woke up this morning a lot of people had shared a link on facebook to the story of a conflict between two people on a plane, ironically on a flight that was taking many people home to celebrate thanksgiving. The story got me thinking a lot about compassion – and the limits that we place on it.

For anybody who hasn’t read it, the story goes that the plane was delayed and one woman – Diane – made a big fuss about needing to get home for Thanksgiving, causing the cabin crew some stress. Another passenger – Elan – livetweeted the exchanges. During the flight he continued to tweet as he sent Diane messages about her lack of compassion. She responded defensively, his messages became increasingly offensive, and when they landed she slapped him in the face. People following Elan on twitter retweeted his story and many deemed him a hero for calling Diane out on her lack of compassion.

You can read Elan’s whole livetweet commentary here.

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Kindness and honesty: Can we have one without the other?

I’ve blogged before on the tension between kindness and honesty: how, often, when we try to communicate honestly we sacrifice kindness, and when we try to be kind to others we sacrifice honesty. I concluded that it was important to find a balance between the two: holding that tension whenever we communicate with others, or indeed ourselves.

Lately, however, it seems to me that kindness and honesty are more inextricably linked than I previously thought. It struck me that kindness without honesty is not really kindness, and that honesty without kindness is not really honesty. So whether we are somebody who – in life – prides ourselves on our openness and straightforwardness, or on our compassion and generosity, we have to engage seriously with the other aspect in order to be truly as we are aiming to be (honest, or kind, respectively).

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Other People’s Feelings

Something that has been a live issue for me recently – both in my own life and in conversations with friends – is how we relate other people’s feelings.

It seems like many of us have a default way of relating in which we feel responsible for how other people feel. A major alternative to this that has been put forward is the idea of ‘owning’ our emotions. This is the notion that people are only responsible for what they, themselves, feel.

I’m going to argue that both of these ways of seeing the situation are limited. An alternative would be to practice being with our own feelings and those of others (without trying to deny, avoid or escape them, or taking all the responsibility for them). This involves recognising that we are not completely separate selves, but rather that we are intrinsically connected with others.

‘You made me feel…’
It seems that a common taken-for-granted way of understanding feelings is that we cause other people to feel things and that we should take complete responsibility for this. People often say ‘you made me feel angry/scared/good/happy, etc.’ and we rarely question the truth of this.

SadKitty

A common extension of this is that if somebody expresses a feeling in relation to something that we are involved with we feel entirely responsible for them having that feeling. Given that we tend, also, to divide feelings into purely positive and purely negative emotions we may then approach the world in a way which attempts to create only positive feelings in others and no negative feelings. We may feel wonderful if those around us are happy (to the extent that we put pressure on them to be so) and distraught if they are not.

Owning our emotions
Perhaps in response to the problems with this common way of viewing other people’s feelings, several authors on topics like assertiveness, relationships and conflict management put forward the alternative approach that we are not at all responsible for other people’s emotions. The idea of owning our emotions suggests that nobody makes us feel anything except ourselves. We can choose how to make sense of other people’s behaviours, and thus we are in control of any emotional response we have: it belongs to us. An extension of this idea is that we would certainly reject any accusation that we had made anybody feel anything.

I am cautious about this because it feels like a pendulum swing to the other extreme: from the idea that we are entirely responsible for other people’s feelings to the idea that we are not responsible at all.

Either completely responsible or not at all?
There are two problems that I have with this either/or approach: one theoretical and one more pragmatic.

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The tendency to polarise

The last couple of days I’ve been thinking and writing here about academic and political debates, particularly the tendency that these have to become polarised into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ positions (here and here). Whilst I was writing I became wryly aware of the fact that, whilst seeing all these problems with polarisation on an academic level, I was regarding things in very polarised ways in all kinds of other aspects of my life.

So I thought that it would be useful to reflect here upon our tendency to polarise. This is both because it is a useful thing to recognise and to challenge in ourselves, and because greater awareness and empathy about the strong magnetic pull to either/or positions is a helpful thing to bring to the kinds of academic/political debates which I’ve been writing about.

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The inevitability of treating partners as things? Romance in Ruby Sparks (and why I like the ending)

Recently I got round to watching last year’s Ruby Sparks on DVD. I’d been looking forward to watching this film for some time because it is a mediation on what would happen if we could create our perfect partner. The film was everything I’d hoped for. However, when I gushed about it on facebook, several people said they had felt let down by the ending. Here I want to present my take on the film, and to explain why I think the ending needed to be the way it was.

Ruby Sparks

In the film an isolated writer (Calvin Weir-Fields) has writer’s block having published one highly successful book when he was pretty young. His therapist encourages him to write a brief account of a positive encounter with another person. He invents a scenario where he meets his perfect girlfriend in the park. Soon he is writing more and more about her because he enjoys imagining her so much. He describes her to his therapist:

Calvin: Ruby Sparks. Twenty-six years old. Raised in Dayton, Ohio.

Dr. Rosenthal: Why Dayton?

Calvin: Sounds romantic. Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher… or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet. Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and… Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She’s looking for it.

Dr. Rosenthal: Looking for what?

Calvin: Something new.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to watch the movie without knowing what happens.

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