On Privilege and Behaviour

I belong to what is pretty much the privileged group people on the planet: I am a middle class white cisgendered neurotypical heterosexual male from a developed nation who does not suffer from a mental illness or have a serious physical disability.

This tends to make me very careful when I talk about equality-related topics, because I am very aware that through no fault of my own, I am more equal than others. I did not ask for it, and I try not to take advantage of it, but nor do I go out of my way to reject the favourable inequities it bestows on me, partly because I don’t know how to, but also because my life is very nice, thank you, and my donning sackcloth and ashes won’t actually help anyone. The solution is to make everyone’s life as nice as mine, not to make mine worse, y’know?

Jenni linked to a conversation between Katie West and Penny Red. I found it an fascinating discussion that really made me think.

Penny’s point, essentially boils down to the fact the women do not have the privilege to do with their bodies as they please, free of political context.

Unfortunately, you don’t get a choice. As a woman, your relationship to your body is always political.

This bugs me on a number of levels. Firstly: that’s a horrifying sentiment. I honestly don’t know if it’s true or not – I know I don’t *want* it to be, and I know that my intial response is that it can’t be, that everyone has the right to define their own relationship with themselves, but I fear that is just my privilege talking. Certainly everyone should have the right to define their own relationships with themselves. Secondly it’s a staggering inequality between men and women, and I am against those.

I feel very strongly that Katie, that everyone, has to have the right to say “no, my relationship with my subject is not political – I choose to do this for my own reasons, and I am declaring that my work, and the relationship with my subject that it is part of, is not about the wider issues surrounding said subject, it is simply about me and my thoughts”. Art may not exist in a vacuum, but an artist may certainly declare that their work is not, for them, part of a wider context, and ask not to be considered in that way. It doesn’t follow that everyone will respect that request, but they have the right to ask for it, and frankly, if a thing is asked for, and it costs nothing to grant it, then it is churlish not to do so.

I am however aware that Katie’s chosen subject is a very charged one. That it may not actually be possible, thanks to the state of gender equality.

And this is where I get back to me. Because really, everything’s about me, of course. I’m a middle class white etc etc.

A brief digression. I don’t like being called a feminist. I mean, I am one, I guess, but men using the term sets my teeth on edge. Not because of the women who use the label, but because of the men. Almost every bloke I’ve ever met who actually used the term “feminist” to describe themselves as a matter of course has had something of the slightly-too-earnest, trying-a-bit-too-hard about him. And, generally, a closer examination of their conduct has revealed that they haven’t been out for equal rights, they’ve been looking to save the poor defenceless women from the terrible patriarchal ogres, and they get very defensive if they’re ever accused of sexism, or being part of the problem. It’s all a bit sleazy, really.

I am not out to emancipate womankind. For one thing, I’m too busy. But much more importantly, all the women I know who give a shit about this sort of thing have about as much use for my help as they do for a chocolate teapot. They’re fully capable of asserting their own rights, and the most useful thing I can do is get out of the way, or possibly hold their coats.

Which brings me do my point: how do I get out of the way? How do I, as a non-fees-paying member of the patriarchy, help create a world where the quote above is not true?

I mean, I am not the kind of man that goes “phwooar” at women, or generally passes comment on their appearance beyond a minimum level of polite compliment. (I generally don’t even hit the “polite compliment” bar, being too dense to notice that someone has changed their hair/worn new shoes/waxed their moustache on any given day, but let’s cover all the bases, shall we?) If there are no women in a given group, and someone is coming out with genuine sexist horseshit, I generally call them on it, if I feel I know them well enough. (I don’t do the same when there are women around, as I don’t want to place them in the position of being looked to to validate or negate my perception of sexism if they’ve chosen not to say anything themselves.)

And yet, I am not able to opt out of casting a Male Gaze (at least, according to some second-wave feminists). And just to be clear, this isn’t a “oh, poor me, I am being held to account for sins I don’t commit, because I am a good little Grauniad reader” type feminist of the sort I identified above. The world is essentially ordered for my convenience, so I don’t get to complain about, really, anything on the equality front. Plus, honestly: yes, I fancy women, and I’m told that it probably isn’t healthy to deny that. What I am saying here is that I feel I have a duty not to make the world a more difficult place for anyone, and I genuinely don’t know if there’s a way I can avoid doing it, simply because I’m a man who, y’know, looks at things, and I am therefore contributing to the problem, and I wonder what more I can do?

Addendum: I have had a few conversations on this topic in the last week, since I wrote the first draft of this post, and had some useful advice, and have revised a few of my views slightly. I am publishing this post as originally written, as I think the questions I’m asking in it are sincere and hopefully valid ones, and I’m interested in hearing a wide range of thoughts on the topic.