It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender… On xenofeminism

I’m reading Xenofeminism by Helen Hester, and it’s amazing.  I disagree with it a lot, but it is in engaging with ideas that we can hone our own views and develop our arguments.

In a previous post, I argued that we have an expectation that people who are minorities should also be able and willing to engage in theory.  That is, it is not sufficient that a person is same-sex attracted, or trans, or queer; they also have to be ready to explain and to defend their preferred gender theory.  This is, of course, nonsense.  We don’t expect the same from the straight white male — if anything, we might be in a better position if all of Australia’s straights were capable of explaining and defending their preferred gender theory.

When explaining why I disagree with xenofeminism, I need to bite a few bullets that I rather hoped I wouldn’t have to bite.  As a conservative, what do I really want to preserve about ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, and ‘nature’?  Xenofeminism presents a number of really interesting challenges in ways that I wasn’t expecting.

At its heart, xenofeminism is about the relationship between science/technology and culture.  It starts from the not unreasonable premiss that a lot of cultural prejudices begin in (what are perceived to be) ‘natural facts’, and the chief ‘natural fact’ is that there is a category of people who are able to give birth.  The argument flows that we have a lot of social artefacts created in order to distinguish that category, whom we imprecisely refer to as ‘women’, among the general population. There are two pathways from here. First, what happens when the social artefacts have long since abandoned the underlying ‘natural fact’?  Second, what happens when technology means that anybody can give birth if they want?

The first pathway leads us towards contemporary mainstream gender theory.  It says: ‘Hang on a moment.  To what extent do we really care about that natural fact when we are talking about gender?’  If you’re same-sex attracted, you’re not really worried about the fertility status of your partner.  But also if you’re opposite-sex attracted, are you really worried about the fertility status of your partner?  So we’ve created gendered bodies to signify fertility status, but long since abandoned our interest in the natural fact of fertility.

The second pathway leads us in a slightly different direction.  It says: ‘Stop being dominated by what you think are natural facts.  Everything is up for grabs, and so the social structure doesn’t make sense anymore.’  The second pathway is motivated by a somewhat idealistic view of science: that it gives complete control over nature, especially over the human body.  In support of that view, they raise the topic of birth control.  We are no longer subject to the wild, untameable aspect of when a person gives birth but, instead, we can make more informed decisions both about getting pregnant (through, for example, IVF), about not getting pregnant (through, for example, birth control), and about staying pregnant (through, for example, termination procedures).  Once giving birth is subject to our desires, why shouldn’t other parts of our body be similarly subject?

There are parts to this second pathway that are more consistent with conservative theory than with mainstream rhetoric about sex and gender.  The most striking similarity is about innate facts of identity.  The conservative take is that identity is taught: we take wild children and discipline them into becoming productive, obedient members of society.  This clashes with the ‘born this way’ rhetoric of modern liberalism, which takes individual identities as a given, determined by some uncontrollable factor.  So people are gay, trans, bi, or whatever as a result of an unchangeable fact.

Xenofeminism argues — I think convincingly — that these categories are up for grabs because the facts that ground the identity are also up for grabs.  What does it mean to be gay if technology means we don’t need to inhabit a gendered body?

But let’s slide it over to race and ethnicity.  So we already recognise that there’s no biological reality to race, and that the physical markers of race are socially determined rather than innate.  But we are really uncomfortable at the idea of being able to adopt those physical markers.

Some care is needed here because the trans community (understandably) hates the argument that adopting the physical markers of gender (like breasts) is like adopting the physical markers of race (like darker skin).

The only reason to raise the argument is that it points in the direction of where a person could reasonably become a bit uncomfortable with the argument presented by xenofeminism.  Once everything is up for grabs, the physical markers of ethnicity also come up for grabs.

The response by xenofeminism is unexpected: ‘Good!  Why shouldn’t the underlying “natural fact” that provides an opportunity for oppression be amenable to change and control?’

The answer for both race theorists and conservatives is the same: the problem with the ‘natural fact’ here isn’t the ‘natural fact’ but the social response to it.  Particular body shapes are incorrectly linked to intelligence, for example, such that people are encouraged to see African Americans as less intelligent because of their physical attributes rather than their, y’know, actual intelligence.  Sure, some kooks like the weird units at Quillette might want to rehabilitate ‘race science’, but the rest of us are comfortable with the idea that ‘race’ doesn’t point to anything specifically biological and, therefore, can’t point to other attributes like intellect.

And, importantly, the link between those racialised attributes and attractiveness.  Again, there’s nothing inherently attractive or unattractive about a particular physical feature, but the social construction of that feature with other attributes (such as submissiveness or ferocity depending on the racist stereotype).

These are things that simple ability to make your skin green do not eradicate, especially given our incredible ability to ‘code’ inhuman attributes to fit racist stereotypes.

Framed differently, if the problem is with the social dynamic, why not put effort into correcting the social dynamic rather than changing the underlying physical attribute?  Xenofeminists, not unreasonably, say that we can do both.  I’m (as a conservative) uncomfortable with that.

I slid quickly over a number of topics above to give a general sketch of general thoughts.  One of the reasons I was thinking more about this was the first episode of the new series of Black Mirror, ‘Striking Vipers’.

In this episode, two (male) friends play an immersive video game in which they find each other’s character sexually attractive.  The video game allows the two men to perform an intimate heterosexual relationship, leading to the central questions of the episode about the nature of attraction and identity.  There are a multitude of readings of the episode, including the idea that it’s simple homophobia which stops the two men from being intimate without the context of the video game.  There’s also the interesting note that the two video game characters both have Asian backgrounds, so is the attraction mere Oriental exoticism?

But the reading I like most is the one that denies an authenticity of the self and of the sexual desire, and that the ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality don’t really describe anything.  That is, the sexual desire was part of the characters’ political framework: they enjoyed the performance of an identity and used each other for mutual masturbation.  This reading is supported by the earlier scenes where the married couple pretended to be strangers in order to achieve a sexual fantasy.  The video game allows each of the men an opportunity to change their friend into somebody who fit the coordinates of their private sexual fantasy.  The video game provides a convenient metaphor for how most contemporary sexual desire takes place: hoping that somebody else will take part in the absurd theatrics necessary for us to fulfil our fantasy.

Although the episode focuses on male sexuality (and sexual fantasy), it corresponds to the idea in xenofeminism that our identities should be up for grabs through technological intervention.  Technology provided an opportunity for the two men to subvert the tyranny of natural facts in order to experience their desires differently.

I think desire is always going to be a political fact.  We learn what to desire through language, and we control what we desire through where we decide to focus our energy.  In the London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan explored the idea of sexual attraction through its counterpart, sexual attractiveness.  Professor Srinivasan framed the discussion around two contrasting ideas.  First, the assertion by ‘incels’ that they deserve to be considered sexually attractive.  Here, men who are unable to satisfy their sexual desires blame women for not finding them sexually attractive.  This results in the rhetoric of punishing women for the perceived injury.  Second, the superficially similar assertion by minorities that they should be considered attractive.  My phrasing here is clunky; but here’s the relevant part from the article:

The difficulties I have been discussing are currently posed in the most vexed form within feminism by the experience of trans women. Trans women often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women who at the same time claim to take them seriously as women. […] Yet simply to say to a trans woman, or a disabled woman, or an Asian man, ‘No one is required to have
sex with you,’ is to skate over something crucial. There is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want, but personal preferences – NO DICKS, NO FEMS, NO FATS, NO BLACKS, NO ARABS, NO RICE NO SPICE, MASC-FOR-MASC – are never just personal.

Xenofeminism opens up that space somewhat more: if I can control all the aspects about myself, to what extent can I (or should I) accommodate the sexual desires of somebody else?  It’s not enough to claim, as xenofeminism does, that the individual becomes liberated to adopt whatever body they choose; the choice is always going to be coerced in some way.  Who would choose a disabled body?  If I could correct my anosmia, wouldn’t I have enormous social pressure upon me to do so for the convenience of others?  Wouldn’t my parents have made this decision for me when I was a child?

Framed more bluntly: rather than creating a new space for allowing individual diversity, doesn’t the underlying aspect of xenofeminism instead suggest a world in which we now feel obliged to be sexually available in whatever format prevailing social norms demand?

In ‘Stiking Vipers’, the men did not adopt the characters who were fat, disabled, or ugly.  Instead, they opted for the hyperidealised bodies.

Maybe I’m failing to land a punch on xenofeminism.  Perhaps it can always escape into ‘Yes, Mark.  We acknowledge that people are terrible and use social mechanisms to oppress people; but why shouldn’t people be able to command their own body to express their own version of their identity if they want to?  Why is the conservative answer — that traditional norms can be rehabilitated — better than the xenofeminist answer — that traditional norms can be consigned to the dustbin of history through radical bio-engineering?’  Maybe it’s that I simply don’t believe the traditional norms can be consigned to the bin.

If you’re tired of Tumblr-quality political debate about gender, sexuality, and race, I recommend giving Xenofeminism a read.  The vast majority of people will not agree with its arguments, but it does force you to think about what your arguments are and whether or not you’re entirely happy with them.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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