Friday, January 28, 2011

Gender politics : time to 'seek truth from facts'?

Indy left an interesting comment on my post about gender politics the other day -

"I don't actually agree with you there. There are certain types of employment that attract different genders. The majority of care workers are women, the vast majority of NHS staff are women, the vast majority of nursery staff and primary teachers are women. The vast majority of bankers are men.

So there is a gender aspect to the situation we are in because the UK Government's cuts will hit women working delivering health or social care services much harder than they will affect the bankers - although bankers have far more responsibility for creating the financial situation which has led to the cuts in the first place.

To add insult to injury we are repeatedly told that the cuts are necessary because we have all been "living beyond our means" - as though the country is teetering on bankruptcy because we have too many nurses or care assistants or nursery teachers. I think we all know that is the most arrant nonsense.

At the end of the day the UK Government has made its choices because it values the work of bankers more than it values the work of nurses or care workers or teachers. Are you so sure that this is not because the bankers are overwhelmingly men and the nurses, care workers and teachers are overwhelmingly women

What I find most striking here is that Indy starts by saying he/she disagrees with me, but nothing from that point on actually directly takes issue with what I said, which was about discriminatory thinking on the part of policy-makers in relation to domestic violence and prostitution, and also about whether generically blaming "men" for the financial crisis was sexist. It seems to me that the implicit suggestion is that by identifying areas of discrimination and prejudice against men, I am by definition denying that there is still discrimination and prejudice against women. It should surely be obvious that simply doesn't follow, and as it happens it categorically isn't true. I wouldn't disagree for a moment that women are being disproportionately affected by the Westmister cuts. I've no idea whether sexism is a driving force behind the coalition's actions, but the notion certainly doesn't strike me as being inherently implausible.

So what is going on here? Why do so many on the left refuse to accept that it's perfectly possible to simultaneously acknowledge the existence of discrimination on the basis of gender against both men and women? I pointed out in my earlier post that Scottish Labour's attitude to gender politics is rooted in Marxism, and that's not a bad place to look for the explanation. A hundred years ago, both gender and class inequality was a one-way street - it was almost always women and an easily-defined working class who found themselves on the wrong end. Faced with a world of such clear-cut contrasts, it was easy for reformers to come up with equally clear-cut narratives to explain the underlying problem - the exploitation of one class by another, and the exploitation of women by men. An "original sin" analysis, you might almost say. The consequential logic is obvious - to claim that other groups (eg. men) suffer from inequality is one way of denying that original sin, and thus to perpetuate the root cause of the oppression. That's the prism through which much of the left continues to view gender politics today.

But the world has moved on, and the pattern of inequality and injustice is now much more complex, both in relation to gender and class. Original sin no longer makes sense as a comprehensive explanation - which also means that, contrary to appearances at the time, it never fully made sense. The analysis contained flaws from the start. Deng Xiaoping recognised that in the late 1970s when he moved the Chinese Communist Party away from the rigid dogma of class struggle that was holding his country's development back. The guiding principle from then on was to "seek truth from facts". Now, strange though it may seem to advise our politicians to take a leaf out of a dictator's book, I'd have to say that's an excellent motto to apply to gender politics in this country. The business of the left should be to combat injustice and inequality without fear or favour wherever the facts suggest it exists - not to distort those facts to fit a redundant narrative of blame it has (understandably) become emotionally wedded to as a result of decades of struggle to advance women's rights. That means, for instance, championing the cause of all victims of domestic violence on an equal basis, and not solely the ones who fit the "original sin" template, ie. women beaten by men.

A few more examples off the top of my head of the double-standards this ideology leads to -

1) I recall seeing an article in the Scotsman two or three years back, about how the medical profession was expected on the basis of statistical projections to become heavily dominated by women in the years to come. Someone was quoted as saying that, instead of seeing this as a "problem" that had to be addressed, we should instead be embracing the advantages brought about by the "feminisation" of medicine. Now, can anyone keep a straight face when arguing that we should stop seeing the male domination of the political class as a problem, and instead celebrate the wonderful "masculinity" of the House of Commons?

2) Probably the most fundamental gender inequality of the lot is that women live several years longer than men. Some of that differential is biologically unavoidable, but by no means all of it. If the situation was reversed and men lived longer, it seems highly probable that it would be a policy priority to reduce the longevity gap by identifying and addressing the underlying causes. There would certainly be no suggestion from the left that women only have themselves to blame for dying younger. But, as it is, what is the reaction to men's plight? More often than not, a patronising and disinterested observation that they don't look after their health as well as women. To call that "pathetic" doesn't even begin to do it justice. Actually, we might look back to point 1 for part of the explanation for why men are less careful about their health - the feminisation of doctor's surgeries. Similarly, the feminisation of education must surely be a factor in boys falling behind in so many subjects - but, again, ideology doesn't permit us to view that as in any sense a "problem". It's always boys' fault for not adapting to the preferred methods of their teachers, and never the other way round.

3) Jim White wrote an excellent piece on Yahoo the other day, pointing out the supreme irony in Richard Keys' claim that football had "gone mad" for introducing a female assistant referee to the top flight of the sport, when it was he who held the risible belief that the sole fact of Sian Massey's gender rendered her incapable of understanding and correctly implementing the offside rule. Yet the adherents to the "original sin" analysis of gender relations can see nothing risible about insisting that the sole fact of their gender somehow makes women incapable of committing violence against a partner, or indeed freely entering into a transaction that commercialises the sexual act.

Incidentally, I should say in closing that I've got no particular axe to grind here - I'm not personally aware of ever having been the victim of gender discrimination. It may well happen one day, but it hasn't yet. And, to put it mildly, I'm not particularly a hyper-masculine sort of chap (I even like Jane Austen in small doses) so in some ways the feminisation of society has suited me well enough. But for others it's a very different story.


  1. You pinned your whole piece on what Harriet Harman said about the banking crisis. I think she had a point with what she said and that is what I was referring to.

  2. I did indeed, and you did refer to it, but you didn't address or refute the point I was making, namely that it is a double-standard to go from a) bankers are mostly men to b) the shortcomings of the male gender are to blame, when it would never in a million years be considered reasonable to go from a) a failing institution or industry is mostly female to b) the shortcomings of the female gender are to blame. I note that in the comment I quoted above you merely say that "bankers have far more responsibility for creating the financial situation which has led to the cuts in the first place". I agree with that, but what Harriet Harman said went a good deal further.

  3. Well I do actually think the shortcomings of the male gender are to blame.

    I think that there are fundamental differences between men and women and that is why most bankers are men and most nurses are women. Obviously you can't apply a gender stereotype to all individuals but, on the whole, men tend to be more competitive and women tend to be more nurturing, which explains the above phenomenon.

    I have no time for people who argue that there should be perfect equality between genders in terms of what is called occupational segregation. Women will not achieve equality when 50 per cent of bankers or company directors are female. Neither will men achieve equality when 50 per cent of nurses or primary teachers are men.

    Rather, I think it is the role of government to give equal value to the conribution of both men and women, to value the nurse as much as the merchant banker.

    But that is not the situation we are in. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that both the previous and current UK governments placed far too much value on the judgement and general sexiness of bankers (and the market system which they represent). And I think the reason for that is because the decision makers in government were themselves men, who were in awe of these slick hedge fund manager tpes and saw bankers in quite a heroic light and thus failed to rein them in. They were, and are, untouchable.

    And that's why I still think Harriet Harman had a point.

    That's not to say, of course, that women have no shortcomings. Far from it! But the difference is that where women screw up they are generally made to pay for it. They are not untouchable the way bankers appear to be.

  4. But isn't there a conflict between on the one hand arguing that bankers failed because they are male and have male failings, but on the other hand saying that it would not be a solution to have more women in the profession? That was precisely the solution Harriet Harman was proposing, as I understand it. What I'd say to her is that it's a very desirable thing to have more women at the top of banking and many other professions, but it's possible to argue for that without being so crass as to blame the financial crisis on the male gender. (I also think, incidentally, that it would be a good thing if there were far more male primary school teachers, although I agree that 50% is unrealistic.)

    "That's not to say, of course, that women have no shortcomings. Far from it! But the difference is that where women screw up they are generally made to pay for it."

    Well, what about the example I gave in my previous post - Tricia Marwick's proposal to import the discriminatory Swedish law on prostitution, which I gather is widely supported in the ranks of Scottish Labour. Male clients would be criminalised, but the women regarded as innocent "victims of male violence", even when they are acting completely independently and without coercion. Isn't that a clear example of women - and women alone - being absolved of responsibility for their own actions? In fact, it's saying women can't be held criminally responsible specifically because they are women, in precisely the same way that young children can't be held criminally responsible specifically because they are young chlidren. Utterly crazy - and a perfect illustration of how the 'original sin' ideology creates a perversion of the notion of 'gender equality'.

    (I should clarify that I personally don't think prostitution should be criminalised at all, but that's a separate debate.)

  5. I don't argue that bankers failed because they are male and have male shortcomings. I'm arguing that they failed because there were no restraints put on those shortcomings. I think you need to look at it in terms of seeing that bankers have certain qualities that I associate with the male gender more than with the female gender - competitiveness, aspiration, determination, resourcefulness, willingness to take a risk etc. Those qualities are not bad qualities - indeed they are admirable qualities and as a society we can't do without them. But give them free rein and they can lead to disaster. I think that is what happened.

    If Harriet Harman is saying that more women bankers would solve the problem I think she is wrong because women who go into banking are likely to have the same personal qualities as the men and therefore to make the same mistakes. In the end what I am saying is as mundane as they need to be regulated better.

    As for the Swedish prostitution approach, I think I agree with that as well. For a start you can't assume that all prostitutes are women, there are a lot of boys involved in it as well. And even some men selling sex to women.
    So it is not necessarily about favouring the rights of women over men, though in most cases it will be.

    The second reason I think it is quite sensible is because these days you cannot disassociate prostitution from trafficking. In Amsterdam for example the vast majority of street prostitutes who are picked up by the police are not only druggies (as they are here too) but also do not have any identity cards, meaning that they are illegal immigrants. Criminalising the clients - the purchasers of sex - therefore seems to me to be more effective than criminalising the prostitutes who are already criminals, whether by virtue of being illegal immigrants or by virtue of being criminal drug users. You are also creating a more realistic disincentive for the traffickers and organised crime to get involved. It doesn't matter much to them (or to the punters) how many prostitutes get arrested. It does matter if punters start getting arrested. If we brought in the same system as Sweden I would think that would have a greater effect on reducing the street trade than anything else.

  6. Indy, what you've just presented is (or ought to be) an argument for criminalising prostitution, full stop. I don't agree with it, and I dare say people more steeped in the statistical evidence than I am would have something to say about your assumptions relating to trafficking, not least because a lot of the alleged "success" of the Swedish model has proved to be illusory on closer inspection. But at least full criminalisation is a logically consistent position. I simply fail to see how criminalising only the buyer would be any more effective at reducing trafficking, even if we assume for the sake of argument that your basic proposition has some truth to it. You say that it doesn't matter to the punters how few prostitutes are being arrested - by the same token it can't possibly lessen the alleged impact on trafficking if thousands upon thousands of prostitutes are being arrested, as long as the punters themselves are also being arrested. If one-sided discriminatory criminalisation would work, by definition full even-handed criminalisation would also work. So if we're going to find a moral justification for legal discrimination against the clients of prostitutes, we have to look for it elsewhere. The logic behind the Swedish law is absolutely explicit -

    "Part of a larger Violence Against Women bill, the legislation was based on the foundation that the system of prostitution is a violation of gender equality. Sweden's legislation officially recognizes that it is unacceptable for men to purchase women for sexual exploitation"

    The ideology thus scarcely even acknowledges the possibility of male sex workers, let alone female clients. That being the case, your claim that the law would also help males means one of two things -

    a) Criminalising women who pay men for sex is somehow protecting those men from "male exploitation of women" (?!?!)

    or, b) You have another justification entirely for criminalising only the buyer that bears no relation to the Swedish one. I can't imagine what that would be.

    You also referred earlier to fundamental differences between men and women, and how the law needs to take those into account if meaningful gender equality is to be achieved - ie. if most cleaners are women, discrimination against cleaners is by extension discrimination against women. By the same token, I'd suggest that, fairly obviously, it's fundamental differences between the genders that leads to more women being the sellers of sex and more men being the buyers. Doesn't your own logic dictate therefore that discriminating against the buyers is, by definition, discrimination against men? This is not, I'll admit, an easy case to make, because clients of prostitutes are not a group that attracts much public sympathy (in spite of the fact that a significant minority are lonely disabled men) but the principle of equality before the law isn't just there for the 'fluffy' cases.

    I may write a proper post about this in future, if I ever have six hours to spare. I have a feeling when this issue is next debated in Holyrood there'll once again be a conspiracy of silence on both sides of the argument in relation to the elephant in the room - shameless discrimination against (and demonisation of) the male gender.

  7. In Scotland both buying and selling sex is illegal as I understand it and I support that position in principle. But let's be practical about it.

    In the first place the Belle De Jour type of prostitute (if she really exists) is not likely to come to the attention of the police in the first place and if she does i.e. if a self-employed woman, not being coerced or constrained into acting as a prostitute, makes her living providing a sexual service for a particular group of clients e.g. disabled men then she could probably get herself classified as a sex therapist of some sort and thus be outside the application of the law.

    For practical purposes the laws on prostitution these days relate primarily to street prostitution and to the provision of prostitutes as part of organised criminal activity.

    These days if the police pick up women (or boys) who are out on the streets selling themselves to get money to buy drugs, or if they raid premises which are being used by organised criminals to sell drugs and/or sex, they are not going to take the prostitutes down to the station and charge them. The kind of people who end up working on the streets are overwhelmingly what would be classed as vulnerable people. They would be regarded more as victims than criminals. So the police will probably call social work or take them down to one of the drop-in centres that try and help prostitutes get out of that lifestyle, rather than arrest them.

    After all it would serve no-one's interests to lock up even more drug addicts in our already overcrowded jails and everyone recognises that.

    That's why it would be much more effective to focus on arresting and charging the clients.

  8. Indy, the buying and selling of sex is perfectly legal in Scotland at present. That was the first of many points I was trying to make in a very long reply, but it was so far over the character limit Blogger wouldn't accept it! I've instead copied and pasted it into a fresh post, which can be found here.

  9. I've just realised I've been calling Trish Godman by the name of the SNP MSP for Central Fife. I knew who I meant - it was just the names I was getting mixed up! Apologies to both Ms Marwick and Ms Godman.