Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Key to the Prison House of Gender

Richard Seymour wrote recently:
From a certain perspective, notably that of radical feminism, all gender socialisation is child abuse.
When he quoted that line on Twitter, I remarked:
In the same way, though, child gender self-identification is self-abuse.
To which he replied:
you're accusing children of abusing themselves.
I answered:
No, I was playing on an antique term that I thought was no longer in serious use. ("Accusing"!)
That, thankfully, was the end of that exchange.

Maybe I was slightly disingenuous, however.  I can't see any reason not to say that children may (and do) do things that hurt themselves and others, as adults do.  It's not an accusation (a term that in this context still perplexes me), and "abuse" is a problematic word: like much of the terminology of regimes of control, it's ambiguous and so is often used carelessly, as in "drug abuse" and "self-abuse" itself.  So let's toss it aside and try to focus on what is really at stake here.

The sentence I quoted from Seymour was the overture to a discussion of, or around, a recent court case in Britain, in which "a judge took a child out of the care of its mother because it was deemed that the child was being forced to 'live as a girl' while in fact identifying as a boy."
We have the text of the judgment to go on, and we have the reactions of trans activists, who have expressed concern about the value judgments implied in the judgment and the absence of gender specialists consulted in court. There is a petition seeking to reverse the decision. 
And that's about it; privacy concerns, I presume, have limited the amount of information accessible to the public.  Seymour therefore decided simply to "ask: what if everything the judgment says is true? I doubt that it is that straightforward, but supposing it is: what conclusions should we draw? For the sake of argument, then, I will assume the factual accuracy of everything that is claimed by the judge."

The ensuing discussion is murky and confused, which is unusual for Seymour.  He's usually exemplary in the clarity and directness of his writing but gender, like religion, is one of his weak areas.  He begins:
In particular, I will assume that the child identified as a boy, and did not consent to live as a girl. Or, more precisely, that the child would have preferred to identify as a boy, and only consented to live as a girl in order to please his mother.
"Identified as" is intensely problematic.  "Identify" is not an analytic term, despite its popularity as a political one.  If the child considered himself a boy, then he continued to "identify as" one despite his mother's pressure.  "Identify" and "live as" are not the same thing at all.  I "identify as" male and as a man, for example, but what does it mean to say that one "lives as" a man?  A child (or an adult) might very well "identify as" one sex while neglecting or refusing to fit the stereotypes (i.e., "gender") associated with it.  I myself violate numerous expectations of masculinity, some of which require more steadfastness than others.

The confusion that runs through the post, though, is the equation of gender socialization and abuse.  Seymour evidently assumes that "socialization" is explicit and overt and probably punitive, though most of the time it's implicit and covert and enforced by approval and reward.  The mother who praised her young son for announcing that he wanted to be Queen of New York was socializing him into her own assumptions about gender.  (I still wonder if she'd have been as delighted if he wanted to be Butch, King of the Cowboys.)  But parents socialize their children by speaking to them in their native language; by living in a given locale with its language and customs, by feeding them some foods and not others, by singing them songs and telling them stories, by providing examples of what people are and how they live.  Parents also socialize their children by teaching them to resist norms and stereotypes: if you teach your sons to cook and clean, and your daughter carpentry and small-engine repair, that is also socialization, and I don't think Seymour would consider it abuse.

It's impossible to raise children without socializing them.  Children can't survive without intensive interaction with other human beings, socializing themselves and being socialized by them; so socializing them cannot be categorized as abuse if "abuse" has any meaning at all.  If it really was the radical feminist position that all gender socialization is abuse, that's a critical flaw in radical feminism. I presume that Seymour is aware of this, and that he was using "socialization" in a narrow sense, such as punishing a child for failing or refusing to conform to some norm.  By "abuse" he presumably meant something like mistreatment and cruelty; mistreatment and cruelty are unacceptable whether they're meted out to children or adults, and regardless of what sort of norms (or none at all) they are used to enforce.

I suppose that some radical Second Wave feminists did imagine that it would be possible to raise children without socializing them into gender norms.  In 1972 the novelist Lois Gould published a fable, X: A Fabulous Child's Story, about a child who was raised without gender socialization as a part of a $23 billion scientific experiment guided and evaluated by "Xperts."  Because it was ostensibly written for children, it's written in an obnoxious cutesy style (another kind of socialization: because you are a child, I will talk down to you).  The child X has to wear red-and-white checked overalls, and after X overcomes the other children's false consciousness, they all want to wear them too.  And after X is evaluated by Xperts who conclude that X is just about the least mixed-up X evar, the neighborhood parents still aren't satisfied:
"But what is X?" shrieked Peggy and Joe's parents. "We still want to know what it is!" "Ah, yes," said the Xperts, winking again. "Well, don't worry. You'll all know one of these days. And you won't need us to tell you."

"What? What do they mean?" Jim's parents grumbled suspiciously. Susie and Peggy and Joe all answered at once. "They mean that by the time it matters which sex X is, it won't be a secret anymore!"
This makes no sense.  When it "matters which sex X is," will X give up the overalls and walk around naked?  Or in sex-appropriate clothing to signal X's sex?  Will X have to give up the freedom X had as a child, and adopt sex-appropriate pastimes and career?  A person's sex continues to matter a lot to adults; children are often granted a fair amount of gender freedom until they reach adolescence, at which point they're supposed to get serious, knuckle down, and conform.

The best I can say for Gould's fable is that she recognizes that raising a child without gender expectations would be very difficult -- as difficult as raising a child to conform to gender norms.  X's parents are given a manual thousands of pages long (they're up to page 85769 by the time X is in first grade), and are guided throughout the experiment by the scientists.  They must maintain a rigorous balance at all times -- indeed, their scientist-guides are as rigid in their prescriptions for socializing an X's gender as any conservative:
Ms. and Mr. Jones had to be Xtra careful.  If they kept bouncing it up in the air and saying how strong and active it was, they'd be treating it more like a boy than an X. But if all they did was cuddle it and kiss it and tell it how sweet and dainty it was, they'd be treating it more like a girl than an X.  On page 1654 of the Official Instruction Manual, the scientists prescribed: "Plenty of bouncing and plenty of cuddling, both.  X ought to be strong and sweet and active.  Forget about dainty altogether".
I almost think that Gould was satirizing the premise of the experiment there, and the idea some people hold that if we just left children to their own innate wisdom and goodness, racism and sexism and all bad things would disappear.  This belief begs the question of where all those bad things come from.  The usual response is that these attitudes are the result of having been carefully taught by wicked or, at best, misguided people.  But where did those careful teachers come from?  Where did their bad ideas come from ? Why are the ideas they teach so tenacious?  Why are they nevertheless so ineffective much of the time? The usual answer entangles us in an infinite regress that doesn't explain anything, but distracts the questioner long enough for the explainer to change the subject.  In Gould's story, after some initial confusion the children around X follow X's example, to the dismay of their parents, but the good guys win easily.  As we know, in real life it's not that easy.

I'll quote again the woman who told a symposium in 1971: “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*  To "live as a man" is any way a man lives; to "live as a woman" is any way a woman lives.

When Richard Seymour wrote about the boy from the court case living "as a girl," he meant living so as to conform to prevailing gender stereotypes.  By his logic, living either as a boy or a girl, as a man or a woman -- regardless of your body configuration or your sex chromosomes -- must be the product of bad faith at best, of abusive socialization at worst.  (Oddly, though, people who reject their assigned stereotype in favor of the opposite one are seen as heroic, free, non-binary.  And can a child "consent" to either?)  Adopting any gender identity apparently means accepting the stereotype, agreeing that certain modes of dress, certain body language, certain occupations, and so on have a gender.  They do only by the same social agreement and processes of socialization that Seymour characterizes as abusive.  Perhaps they are, but we can't get rid of them.  If we don't teach children sex roles, they'll invent their own.  Children aren't passive objects of socialization.  They resist, they create options, they socialize each other.

Seymour mentions "the absence of gender specialists consulted in court."  I find this curious, since expert testimony on gender is always culture-bound, and the results will be largely predetermined by which gender specialists are allowed to testify.  As a gay liberationist influenced by radical feminism I wouldn't trust a child's (or adult's) fate with them; call me old-fashioned if you like.  The only authority Seymour quotes in the post is the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), who might or might be right in his opinions, but I wouldn't look to a Freudian or any other mental health professional for guidance on sexism.

Seymour says that the same parents who are "evasive and anxious in answering questions about sex, particularly if they are unhappy about their sex lives"
are usually strangely emphatic, insistent, about who is a boy and who is a girl, and about the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory. They leave no doubt about the matter, even though many children quietly entertain the gravest doubts. Simply, where children want knowledge and independence, parents often communicate ignorance and obedience.
This seems to me to sentimentalize children.  Of course one might suggest that adults "leave no doubt about the matter" exactly in areas where they have many doubts, and little knowledge.  No one has much knowledge about gender, and it would be better to "communicate ignorance" than certainty (which is not the same as knowledge) where one is ignorant.  Most adults are no better informed about sex and reproduction than they are about gender, and their evasiveness comes partly from uncertainty about how best to answer the questions they're asked, and partly from anxiety about bodies, their own and their children's.  If they are insistent about "who is a boy and who is a girl," it's probably because it's how they were socialized, and I'm not sure that most children are any more interested in complex, indeterminate answers on that matter than adults are.  A lot of research has been done on children and gender in the eighty-plus years since Ferenczi died, and it indicates that even very young children are active participants in their construction of gender and other matters while they are still infants.  Children who vary from the prevailing norms aren't necessarily interested in ambiguity either.  They are often quite sure what is girl stuff and what is boy stuff.  While they should be allowed as much freedom as possible to chart their own course, their gender theories are as likely to be bullshit as their elders' are, and for the same reason.  Children who stray from official norms can be every bit as "emphatic" and "insistent" as the adults who try to confine them to those norms; I think Seymour takes for granted that the children are right and the adults are wrong.  I don't.

Against Seymour's stricture on "the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory," I've noticed that advocates for gender atypical children, and at least some transgender adults are claiming a biological basis for gender variance.  They equate biological sex with the sex chromosomes or a tiny region of the brain and equate it with gender.  One such person, for example, claimed that "science is increasingly revealing to us that gender identity is more or less inborn"; a transgender friend told someone who asked her why she was trans that it was "a matter of brain structure"; both of these claims are false, just like the claim that homosexuality is more or less inborn and a matter of brain structure.  I don't know what Seymour thinks about this, but the current trend even for gender nonconformists is as hostile to the radical feminist position as any traditionalist, seeking to root gender in the body.  Failing that, they try to reify gender, as a pre-cultural autonomous essence rather than a cultural construction.  Both positions are incoherent and quickly become entangled in their contradictions, as Seymour's does.  A radical feminist position would be to abolish gender, but though I consider that desirable I'm not sure it's possible.  Even the radical Second Wave feminists who argued for the abolition of gender kept falling back on gender stereotypes.  It will be no more possible to abolish the socialization of children; the best we can do is try to make the process more flexible, open and humane.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.