Last night I stumbled upon (via a friend) what is probably one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time about male circumcision – it’s got just about everything there. The religious angle, of course, since the article is written by Jewish Nobel prize winner, George Wald.
But more than that, it highlights what a complex issue genital cutting is and expands upon the probable motivations that drive people to it. Where angry victims tend to place the blame (squarely upon mothers, except in Judaism); FGM; issues of gender and misogyny; the less reported forms of MGM outside of the USA and Europe; basic embryology; health myths (for the skeptical readers!); and personal perspectives from those involved.
My one problem with article is minor but it started me thinking, so here it is. His use of the term “bisexual“. I think in the article’s context he means something more along the lines of intersex/hermaphroditic. He’s talking about the first people in creation myths being of both genders, parallel with the contested view of a god who is “both male and female”. That’s not what bisexual means, at least now – what it actually means is being attracted both to people who identify as the same gender as you do, and to those whose gender identity is different from yours.
To improve understanding, a common point is that you wouldn’t be surprised by someone who likes people whatever their hair/skin colour, height, or weight. For many bisexual people, gender is also no bar to attraction or, indeed, love. Through ignorance and misunderstanding, there are so many misconceptions and insults thrown at those who self-identify as bi, and in recent years I have become more aware of it and more annoyed by it. Bisexuality does not imply greed or promiscuity, it is not a product of indecisiveness, immature experimentation or a phase. Assumptions along these lines are offensive.
Biphobia, including the assumptions listed above, may not be a concept everyone is familiar with. Sometimes people argue bisexuality doesn’t even exist, but I disagree very strongly for many reasons. Bi-invisibility is part of biphobia; people often (consciously or otherwise) try to erase bisexual identity when they find it. Settling down with a partner of the opposite or same sex does not then magically make you straight or gay! Just as a prolonged involuntary dry spell does not make anyone who would rather be sexually active in fact asexual. Bisexual individuals who have only had sexual experiences with the opposite sex do not have to identify as “curious” – would you question someone’s professed heterosexuality at age 21 just because they happen to have remained a virgin?
Not everyone chooses a label for themselves. Some do not find it necessary, some find it restricting – people who have absolutely no boundaries with respect to gender (or anything else) and their relationships may, for example, prefer pansexual. However, there are good arguments against using semantics and etymology as reasons to shun labels – but especially, against criticising other people’s self-identification with them.
Many labels are reductive, they kind of have to be by their very nature. But people often like to be part of a group, it helps us to feel we belong and are accepted. Most of us crave that; we seek out communities that value similar ideas and this helps us value ourselves. It can be integral to our happiness, though may not be essential for everyone. Uniting under a banner – literally or figuratively – can also help push forward the drive for equality and fair treatment. It is important to bear in mind that identification with labels is (or should be) a choice that people make and when minority groups attack each other for it (bisexuals are somewhat famously persecuted by both gay and straight communities) it is so self-defeating.
Coming to grips with these ideas in theory is one thing. Living them in practice is another. For example, having seen otherwise sensible and lovely people come out with some nasty transphobia (something I have shamefully done in the past myself), I still consider direct experience – meeting people and getting to know them – to be one of the best ways of overcoming irrational prejudices. Once you meet people and see that your assumptions were total crap, it’s much easier to move on and make positive changes to opinions and behaviours. This, for me, is also one of the strongest arguments against segregated education, particularly on religious grounds.
I did go to a single-sex school, but that didn’t preclude my having male friends. It did mean I encountered a lot of homophobia (obviously going to school with pupils of one gender automatically makes you gay!) and, indeed, biphobia (well if you fancy any of the girls, you must fancy all of them! Another stupid biphobic idea that’s so obviously ridiculous if you apply it to straight or gay people) – but ultimately I feel positive about my education at least in academic terms. That’s a whole other post, though. Feel free to leave your views, teachers and single-sex/co-education fans!
The “gender binary” is a problematic idea for lots of people and even male/female labels can be oppressive. This fantastic article sparked a little debate recently. I have had abuse shouted at me when I’ve not been looking obviously female – which probably isn’t too often but still – and people are often shocked by this. I hate that women and men are expected to look certain ways, and if you look out for it I’m sure you’ll see that insults based on this are common.
For some reason, not being able to work out the contents of someone’s pants (or indeed their sex chromosomes) is a legitimate source of comedy or, worse, justification for derision or violence. “Justin Bieber looks like a girl in that photo! Hahaha!” “Is that person over there a boy or a girl? I don’t know! Let’s beat the shit out of them to teach them a lesson.” – what? Why are people required to be open books? Misogyny, homophobia, transphobia – people don’t realise it, and they continue it.
Yet this kind of restriction is something that the majority don’t think about – they probably don’t have to, if they’re lucky to fit within the “normal” boxes that the culture has predefined. That extends to many lifestyles, decisions and qualities – we are not all the same and society’s (as opposed to the individual’s) need to label is often so restrictive that it oppresses huge numbers of people. But something else that annoys me is hypocrisy around protecting people’s right to choose and the nature of preferences.
I believe people can do whatever they like, especially when it comes to sex, if all necessary consent is obtained and no one is being harmed. So, I get pretty angry when people start throwing around accusations of -isms and -phobias based on other people’s sexual preferences. Thankfully we do have the right to decide who we sleep with! We have no obligations to anyone in that regard, from asexuals to enthusiastic sex workers, our choices are (or should be) our own. Don’t talk about choice and how important it is and then dictate to people what they should and shouldn’t do with their sex lives.
Attraction (or lack thereof) is innate, not chosen, as pro-equality campaigners will tend to argue. If you’re not attracted to someone of the same sex, not sleeping with them does not make you a homophobe, obviously – similarly, not being attracted to people from a particular “race” – or to none except similar to yours – does not make you racist. As long as your only discrimination is not sleeping with them, I don’t see how you could possibly come to any other conclusion. You’re looking for things to be angry about, perhaps. I witnessed a bit of a Twitter argument about this recently, and it’s one I’ve had myself, so now is a good time to make the point.
There are also different kinds of attraction: including (but perhaps not restricted to) physical, emotional, intellectual – different people place different levels of importance on those things and choose their partners accordingly. I’m a fan of all three at once, which is reflected in my history (that’s my own business unless I choose to talk to people about it!) and preferences – some decide to call that “picky”. Those with broader tastes might say they don’t have “a type”, or disconnect their physical experiences from other aspects of their lives.
These are all choices we can make, yet often we find ourselves judged for them. The “less discerning” among us might be labelled sluts or studs (again, depending on your gender and the ridiculous expectations people hold based on it) and those who are very selective about who they sleep with or simply place little importance on the physical might be frigid or gay – that most pathetic of insults that I still struggle to banish from my vocabulary because of the university environment.
This destructive judgmental behaviour is a bit like feminists sneering at women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mums when that’s what makes them and their family happy and works in their relationships. Or when polyamorous folk start calling their monoamorous friends “weird”. When people with a particular fetish put down those who happen not to share it. Acceptance has to be given as well as received, and if you are going around being very negative about groups you don’t identify with then I’m not sure you’re helping, however active you are in other progressive causes. Live and let live.
Choice is what it’s all about. You should be free to choose things for yourself, in your own life, especially when you are harming no one. However, the imagined “parental choice” to cut the genitals of their children needs to go. That dangerous decision takes away choice from the victim, who can never regain what is taken from them, who can never choose for themselves what was done to their body. Irreversible damage. Adults choosing body modification/cosmetic surgery/assignment surgery for themselves is clearly different and irrelevant to the GM debate.
I might write a post that’s actually about GM soon..!