Talking about desire, talking about fucking

I’ve been thinking a lot about erotica recently.

Basically, Alon Lischinsky handed me 1.4 billion words of online erotica, and I am helpless to resist a big corpus. I presented some preliminary finding at Corpus Linguistics 2017 (slides available at this link; more stuff available on the project page) in which we try to see how different genres of erotica in our corpus relate to each other.

We’re interested in a few angles: there is a lot of work on the historical aspects of porn (for example, how it has been produced and disseminated, the development of genres, its the cultural context and so on), porn that is seen to be somehow transgressive (for example, a recent special issue of Porn Studies was devoted to gonzo porn) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer porn. As far as we’re aware – and we’d love to be corrected! – there isn’t a lot of material looking at really straightforward common-or-garden amateur erotica. The corpus is collected from a large, well-established online repository of erotica. We don’t have a huge amount of information on who is creating it as many people decline to state their gender and/or sexuality (and the information they do give may reflect an identity other than their offline identity), but “male” is the most frequent gender and “straight” is the most frequent sexuality associated with authors in the dataset.

Doing some kind of work with erotica is going to create a response. I think it’s hard not to have some kind of engagement with erotica (and porn, and the erotic more broadly) in the culture I live in, even if that response is to deliberately avoid it. There isn’t a lot of room for self-indulgent reflexivity in academic texts but, happily, a blog is all about self-indulgence and as these thoughts have been swirling around in my head and cluttering up my mental space, I thought I’d try to write about them here.

The first thing I’ve been thinking about is my own experience with erotica.

Baby queer

I grew up in a religious environment and went to a single-sex Catholic school in the 1990s (that bit is important). We did recieve some sex ed in Year 7 – it vacilliated between the strictly biological (calculating ovulation dates and some “insert Tab A into Slot B” style diagrams) and “cut out pictures of families from magazines and stick them to a bit of A3 paper” – said couples were all heterosexual and monogamous, what a surprise. At no point were we taught that sex was not simply biological and not performed solely for reproductive purposes; there was some discussion of the rhythm method but absolutely nothing about contraception. At an adult, it grieves me how badly we were failed by this “education”. It meant that we tried to seek out information from other sources, chiefly Just 17 and More! magazines – and ended up learning a lot of sexist crap about gendered relationships as well as what a condom was.

Predictably, as teenagers, we rebelled. We smuggled in copies of women’s magazines and read the sex advice with avid curiosity, devouring information both about birth control and how to please your man and 10 sexy tricks he’ll never forget. In sixth form, we had a section of a noticeboard in our common room devoted to condom receipts and, at Christmas time, someone pinned up photos of naked men wearing strategically placed Santa hats. The local nickname for pupils included the word “sluts” and there was a persistant rumour that while our school had the higher conception rate, the other all-girls school had the higher birth rate. As far as I know, no evidence was ever produced to substantiate this claim but nevertheless, it refused to die.

For me, it was complicated by the fact I was not heterosexual or, it turned out, cisgender. A single-sex Catholic school under Section 28 was not a kind or nurturing or, indeed, safe for a young queer. Section 28 made it illegal for the school to promote homosexual relationships and being a Catholic school, they weren’t going to anyway. I initially thought I was asexual because I was aggressively uninterested in the heterosexualities on offer: either reproduction in the context of the nuclear heterosexual family or a lot of what seemed like fairly unpleasant recreational sex with unpleasant, pushy men. I noped out of that pretty quickly and at one point, my plan was to become a monk and, I don’t know, look after bees.

Queer lessons from fic

However, the queers and weirdos and outsiders also found Stuff To Read About Sex, and our salvation came in the form of fanfiction.net. There was a thriving exchange of fic, printed out over a very rationed dial-up connection and hidden in A4 ringbinders amoungst the Biology notes and English annotated poems. I found this much more interesting, especially when I hit upon a rich seam of genderfuck Placebo fic which I proceeded to mine for weeks. It was a secret rebellion – literally underground because our common room was in a basement which we made a bold attempt to tunnel out of.

In a way, fanfiction educated me. It taught me that there were sexualities other than heterosexual ones, and genders that didn’t easily map onto “man” and “woman”, and people could (in theory at least) have genders were fluid and shifted between these, and people (again, in theory) were attracted to them and wanted to have sex with them. It spoke of people who loved people of their gender, people who accepted their lover in whatever gender they presented, people who negotiated sex and boundaries and consent, people who didn’t have happily-ever-afters but who had to talk and argue and reconfigure their friendship and relationship. The screen did not coyly fade to black and the story often did not end with sex; instead, there were morning-afters and misunderstandings and confusion that had to be resolved. The people had agency and were active participants, and sex did not fundamentally change them. Fic gave me some words to start describing who I loved and who I was, and although they weren’t necessarily the right words and sat uneasily on me, they felt a lot better than “straight” or “heterosexual”.

It wasn’t perfect – while I commend whoever thought up of the lube spell for having the awareness that yes, lube is generally a good idea for anal sex, I could quite happily go without reading about it again – but it was a different discourse, one that pitted itself against that I learnt in school and that I learnt through women’s magazines, and it was a quiet and hopeful voice that said, “this is not the way things have to be; create something better”.

I am not good at writing these stories, but I like to think that that message stayed with me. It led me across gender identities and sexualities, into places where no labels exist, into places where things collide in interesting and apparently impossible ways. These stories could express things I didn’t know I wanted, didn’t know existed. There’s something really hopeful about that.

Sex educator

In my teens and early twenties I made Quite A Lot of bad relationship decisions (turns out having very little concept of boundaries or consent is not exactly great for happy, loving, supportive relationships!) and eventually staggered my way into coming out and, eventually, made much better relationship decisions. Along the way I realised that I did not know nearly enough about sex as I should and researched the hell out of it to the extent that, as an LGBT Welfare Officer, I could plan and give workshops on sexual health. I spent a lot of time with queer activists who were doing a lot of talking and thinking about things like boundaries, negotiation and consent: what they meant, what they looked like in practice, how to model them in our friendships and relationships (not written by someone I know, but this is indicative of the conversations we were having). I went into weird, deep internet dives about all sorts of things.

I ended up reading detailed posts about lube (lots of posts about lube!), toxic sex toys, the campaign for non-toxic sex toys, descriptions of vibrations and comics about sex toys and sex, identities, fantasy and relationships. I learnt about Safe, Sane and Consensual and RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) and the differences between them – basically, that some activities will never be totally safe but there’s a lot you can do to mitigate that risk. I learnt about safewords and what negotiating a scene might look like. I learnt about different models of relationships and different dynamics within relationships. I learnt how to approach, learn about and not judge what kinds of sex people were having, even if it was not something I was into myself.

I also learnt and thought a lot about negotiating consent and how I could apply what I’d learnt to non-sexual contexts. I think a lot about what it looks like when I teach challenging material or when I interact with my parrot companion. I want to be having conversations in which “no” is something that can be said knowing it will be respected, making a “yes” more meaningful.

As such, I find it quite difficult to read some of the erotica texts in the corpus. If I read them with a sex educator hat on, there’s a lot to side-eye. A lot of acts are simply anatomically impossible and/or certainly anatomically inadvisable. Some of the stuff about anal sex is pretty hair-raising (ramming it in and hoping for the best is probably not a good idea! neither is switching from anal to vaginal sex without changing condom!), the pill is not a barrier method and pretty much everyone is in need of more lube. However, as I’ll discuss in the next section, that’s not necessarily how the texts are meant to be read.

A lot of these texts are written by people who identify themselves as heterosexual (cis) men, who aren’t a group I’m generally attracted to and with whom (with notable exceptions!) I don’t interact much outside family and colleagues. I find them pretty baffling. There is material in this corpus that I find troubling about women, trans people, Black and minority ethnic people, about relationships and sex between women and men. As someone who has been racially fetishised before and for whom it is a hard “no”, it’s difficult to be confronted with that and to remain detached.

Erotic complexities

However, it’s also important to think about the complexities of online erotica. In critical discourse analysis, we are trained to think about texts as representing and creating a reality. For example, whether I talk about a group of people as “activists” or “protesters” or “a mob” or “rioters” matters: I might be talking about the same people doing the same things, but how I conceptualise them and communicate my conceptualisation of them is important. How I write about them creates and sustains my worldview, and I can persuade people to share my way of looking at things and interpreting events.

It is important to understand that erotica does not have a simple relationship with reality. The world constructed in an erotica text is a world that does not necessarily map onto real-world desires, but, at the same time, it does reflect the cultural context in which it is produced. Alon has explored agency roles in a subset of the erotica corpus and found that male characters are presented as active participants while female participants are presented as passive. This cannot be read in isolation, and we have to think about how it reflects a sexist power dynamic and heterosexist assumptions of the roles women and men have in sex.

There are straightforwardly fantastical elements in these texts. While establishing the ontological reality of vampires, werewolves and aliens is beyond the scope of this project, if people were having sex with vampires, werewolves and/or aliens as often in real life as they are in this corpus, I think there would be much fewer trashy documentaries speculating about their existence (n.b. I love these trashy documentaries, don’t judge).

However, there are also things happening in these texts that are more complicated. As an example, authors create a persona when they upload their stories. It’s impossible (within the constraints of our dataset) to work out to what extent these map onto their offline identities. I use the term “offline” rather than “real” because these identities can be very real; for example, someone may be able to explore a sexual identity through erotica long before they’re ready to come out (if they decide to come out at all). The writing identity itself may be erotically charged and someone might find it arousing to inhabit a different identity when writing or reading erotica.

People imagine sexual activities that they would not neccesarily find erotic or desirable if they happened in reality. These may be experiences or dynamics; for example, scenes of humiliation, kidnap and/or forced sex. This is not unique to erotica; people in the BDSM have written about staging sex by force fantasies (link NSFW, CN for rape and sexual assault) in a consensual way, so the desirable, erotically charged elements that make it appealing can be experienced.

People also write physical acts, such as types of genital stimulation, that they have either not experienced or would actively not like to experience in reality but in the world of the text it becomes something desirable. Sometimes people write about physical acts in a way that doesn’t reflect real life. There are extremely ambitious refractory periods, anal sex without any kind of warm-up or preparation, sex without a barrier method, insufficient lube, and lots and lots of unnegotiated sex and assumptions about the kind of sex the participants are going to have. On one hand, this is fine in the world of text – in the text world that is being created, these things may have an internal logic.

However, this again has a complex relationship with reality. As I discussed earlier, sometimes erotica is someone’s first encounter with sexual acts or types of sexuality – that was certainly true for me. I think there are different issues here: what does it mean to depict unrealistic sex if readers understand that this takes place in a text world where the rules (of anatomy, of behaviour, of consent, of sex) are different versus what does it mean to depict unrealistic sex if readers are not aware that there is this distance between the text world and the real world? There are interesting conversations to be had about the presence of erotica, and porn more generally, in people’s lives and how it informs their sexualities.

Conclusion

Erotica gives me a lot to think about, and often forces me to challenge my ways of thinking. The erotic texts in this corpus offer different challenges than what I’m used to – they’re very much not coming from my queer feminist consent-aware bubble, and contain material that is distressing and difficult. However, I think it’s important to investigate texts like these: through examining fantasies, I hope that we can discover something about how people write about and think about and imagine sex and sexuality.

we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

L, G, B – here’s your T

On 30 September 2014 I attended Stonewall’s first group meeting of trans activists. I wrote about my thoughts on Stonewall’s missing T before the meeting; here is my response to the meeting itself. Other people have also written about it and I will be updating the list as other things are posted; please let me know if you’re written something about that meeting and you want me to link to it.

Jane Fae: What happened at Stonewall’s first meeting with the trans community?
Natacha Kennedy: Alliances and Oppositions. Trans activism and Stonewall
Zoe Kirk-Robinson: Putting the T Back in Stonewall
CN Lester: #TransStonewall – the first meeting
Zoe O’Connell: #TransStonewall: The Meeting
Ruth Pearce: Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

What happened on the day
To very briefly summarise, there are four options on the table for Stonewall’s future involvement in trans issues. One option was that Stonewall can remain as an LGB organisation but works to be a better ally for trans people and issues affecting us. The general feeling in the room was that this was to be taken as given. The other three options were that Stonewall could be a much more active partner. We discussed the following three options in small groups, looking at the pros and cons of each.

  1. That Stonewall become a full LGBT organisation.
  2. That Stonewall helps set up a sibling organisation to tackle trans issues – raising initial funds, sharing expensive resources such as IT and HR, and helping with training. This organisation would then become an autonomous, though linked, entity.
  3. That Stonewall remain an LGB organisation, but provide grants to existing trans organisations.

One of the things that Ruth Hunt wanted to explain was just how Stonewall functioned as a strategic lobbying organisation. Part of their role is to work with organisations that are homophobic and/or really unaware of LGB issues. For example, they work with Paddy Power, and will continue to advise on their campaigns. There are also campaigns they can’t get involved with (e.g. sex worker rights) because they’re under so much scrutiny from, for example, religious groups that would kick off about it. I wonder how comfortable trans people would be with that – especially when survival sex work is something that affects many trans women.

I think the current feeling is that we don’t want to completely assimilate into Stonewall and we want to keep a degree of flexibility that will allow for trans specific stuff to be tackled. From the trans perspective, there are issues that will affect us without affecting cis LGB people and we may decide that we wanted to operate in a way that Stonewall doesn’t (for example, by offering services or supporting individuals). Ruth Hunt stressed that she did not want the relationship between Stonewall LGB and Stonewall T to be unequal, junior or paternalistic.

The overwhelming feeling in the room was that we didn’t want Stonewall to issue grants to existing organisations. This felt paternalistic, felt as though it could introduce unnecessary competition between groups, and tied up limited resources into the process of applying for and administering grants. While both options 1 and 2 have flaws, the group generally felt that some kind of option 1.5 would be suitable – sharing resources with Stonewall but being a critical friend rather than subsumed into Stonewall.

Positives and negatives
On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic. The following points are things I liked and found reassuring about the day.

  • Ruth Hunt seems genuinely committed to changing Stonewall and has clearly been thinking about this for a long time.
  • Calm, thoughtful facilitation.
  • On the day itself, there was very little fighting. There had been problems on the facebook group about people’s political affiliation, but there seemed relatively little of that in the room itself.
  • They want to have further meetings with non-white people, people with disabilities, intersex people and children/teenagers.
  • Stonewall are exploring lots of options in how Stonewall should become trans inclusive and it’s not going to be a top-down decision.
  • Ruth Hunt is very, very aware of what Stonewall has done badly in the past and has apologised profusely. She’s very clear on how and why things went wrong in the past.
  • She’s also aware that just general understandings of gender and sexuality have changed and become more sophisticated, and Stonewall hasn’t really moved with that. While they run some very effective campaigns (and I think that some, like ‘Some people are gay – get over it’, have helped create an environment of acceptance and room for more nuanced understandings) but she’s aware they have to be able to engage on a number of levels from 101 to complex, nuanced stuff.
  • Non-binary identities are included and Stonewall is very aware of our existence. Any trans inclusion in Stonewall will not simply focus on binary trans identities and ignore the rest of us.

However, there were also things that I feel less confident about. Some of these are things that Stonewall could have done better – but others are things that the trans community has contributed to. We have to put our own house in order.

  • It was really, really not diverse in terms of race and age. When I pointed this out, Ruth Hunt said that they’d invited more people of colour who declined to attend. I think this is a problem in itself and worth thinking about in terms of why people wouldn’t have felt comfortable attending.
  • There was no information about how the day would be structured given to us before the meeting which worried me – I had no idea about how we’d be expected to work, what they actually wanted to discuss or when we were going to get breaks. This is a problem for people with both mental and physical health issues – for example, what if you have blood sugar issues?
  • Some people had already made their minds up. It’s annoying when you have to see pros and cons of an option for making Stonewall trans inclusive and someone has already decided that that particular option is A No Good Terrible Idea and refuses to see any positives at all.
  • Microagressions. I got mansplained at, and a friend was called “exotic” because she’s mixed race. This is unacceptable – how can we expect cis people to acknowledge the diversity of the trans communit(y/ies) if we can’t be respectful ourselves?

There are some big legal fights looming – I don’t believe the Gender Recognition Act is fit for purpose – and Stonewall have experience in political lobbying, bringing legal test cases and so on. I think it would be foolish to throw that away, but it’s really, really important to think about what trans inclusion in Stonewall looks like, how it works, how closely tied to Stonewall it is, who it’s accountable to and so on.

Three things we want from a trans-inclusive Stonewall
My group came up with three things we’d like to see from any kind of trans inclusion from Stonewall.

  1. Trans issues should be incorporated into existing and future campaigns where appropriate. The current ‘No Bystanders’ campaign is already trans inclusive, we’d like to see ‘Some people are gay’ extended to ‘Some people are trans’ (and, indeed, ‘Some people are they’).
  2. We want to see inclusive, accountable, effective, diverse trans-specific campaigns on a nationwide level.
  3. Any campaign must involve trans people and must be sustainable – both financially, and also in terms of the human cost.

Next steps
The next steps are to consult with a wider variety of people. This meeting was not decisive – only a starting point. Stonewall will be holding further meetings with trans people of colour, intersex people, people with disabilities and trans children and young people. In addition, they want as many people as possible to email and phone them.

They will release an interim report in January and ask for responses on that. They will issue the final report with their recommendations in April. They could be starting to campaign on trans issues by Autumn 2015.

S_onewall and the missing T

So, let’s talk about Stonewall. Or, as many UK trans activists call them, S_onewall (the T is silent). It’s perhaps ironic that an organisation named after a riot kicked off by trans women and gender non-conforming people is so very bad at trans issues.

As a couple of examples, Stonewall is notorious for inappropriately addressing trans issues in anti-bullying material for schools and celebrating transphobic journalists like Julie Bindel and Bill Leckie. Natacha Kennedy has discussed whether Stonewall is holding back transgender equality and whether they are institutionally transphobic. Let us be clear: many trans people feel that Stonewall goes beyond lack of interest in trans issues to actively undermining our efforts. It’s been doubly galling because Stonewall have reach and influence that trans organisations can only dream of – they have the resources to campaign against homophobia in schools, influence government policy and to have a respected international presence.

As such, I cautiously welcome Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and her desire to open dialogue with the trans community and support us.

At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.

We want to hear about what you think the next steps are to achieve equality for trans people and the role that Stonewall might be able to play. We’re determined to get this right and we promise to keep you updated as conversations progress.

I have been invited to one of these meetings at the end of August.

Ruth Pearce has written an excellent post, Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity, in which she explores why this dialogue is important, outlines some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outlines her priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists. It’s a very comprehensive summary and I don’t want to reinstate it, so I will urge you to read her post first.

My own observations on this:

  1. Currently, there seem to be two strands of trans activism: local and national. National trans activism is focused on media representation, as seen most clearly in Trans Media Watch’s media monitoring and All About Trans’ interventions with media professionals. I am not objecting to this at all; one strand of my own research explores the media representation of trans people. Trans Media Watch offer compelling evidence in their submission to the Leveson Inquiry (.pdf) that negative media represention has a direct impact on trans people’s safety, welfare and mental health.

    However, I do think that there needs to be more to support non-media issues at a national level. In my experience, this tends to fall to local trans support groups. These groups tend to focus on issues that directly impact on individual members of the local community. These may include cases of discrimination in employment and education, access (or lack of) to medical interventions and appropriate healthcare, asylum and immigration issues, and housing issues. When such issues have occurred, the lack of a national organisation capable of advising – or even aware of similar issues around the country – has been sorely felt. As an example, trans people in my local area have had huge problems with the local NHS trust “red-listing” cross-sex hormones, meaning that GPs (with a budget for prescriptions) were unable to prescribe them. Instead, the local Gender Identity Clinic (that does not have a budget for prescriptions) had to assume responsibility. It would have immensely helpful to have a national organisation capable of advising on – or even aware of – the situation nationally. We were left wondering whether this was just affecting us or whether it was a national issue.

  2. In addition, many local groups are entirely volunteer-run. This means that volunteers may have the skills but not the funds, time or energy to provide a consistent service. Activist burn-out is a real problem in our community. It is exhausting holding down a job, dealing with an often unhelpful medical community, dealing with gender dysphoria – and, often, mental and physical health problems – and attempting to support other trans people, to provide training and education, to campaign about the latest transphobic or simply unintentionally trans exclusive awfulness. I know so many brilliant people who are simply exhausted, worn out, ground down by the fact that this never stops, is relentless.

    This also tends to mean that volunteers are more likely to be those who can take on an unpaid, time-consuming position and are less likely to be at the sharp end of homelessness, unemployment, medical abuse, disability. People who are, in other words, privileged and often without first-hand expertise in dealing with such complex, difficult situations. I believe that secure paid positions for trans activists is a priority and would free people to actually work on these issues in a systematic and consistent way instead of expecting them to give up their free time. It would be a very concrete demonstration that trans activism is valued.

  3. We must be focusing on issues like housing, healthcare, disability, violence, poverty, mental health, immigration and asylum, and access to education. We must have an intersectional approach and focus on areas that affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community. We must look at areas where a trans identity makes already dangerous situations life-threatening.
  4. Having looked at the list of attendees, I am concerned that the group Stonewall has invited is skewed towards white, highly educated, established activists who tend to be trans women with a binary identity. As non-white/people of colour we have concerns and experiences that aren’t shared by white people, and I want to raise as many as I can at this meeting.

    Some things I want to talk about are poor understanding from healthcare professionals (everything from their understanding of what family looks like to post-op scarring on non-white skin), racism from the LGBQ community, mental health and lack of representation of QTIPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour).

  5. Building on the last point, we have to be aware of intersectionality and privilege beyond the obvious of a trans history and/or identity e.g. aspects of class and education. We have to be aware of who is underrepresented, or not represented at all. Future meetings must be more diverse.
  6. I would welcome the development of a national trans organisation but feel that Stonewall is not trusted by the trans community; after years of active disinterest and undermining of trans activism (such as its use of “tranny” in the Fit campaign materials) I find such hesitation understandable. However, Stonewall does have lobbying power and has vast experience in bringing lesbian and gay issues to national attention.

    Ideally I would like to see the development of a national trans organisation that can collaborate with Stonewall on campaigns and the development for paid positions within it. However, trans liberation has to take priority rather than keeping Stonewall happy. I am for being challenging, radical, awkward, uncomfortable. I want to have these difficult conversations. I do not want any trans organisation emerging from this to be seen as “safe” or existing to appease cis people. It has to be for us, by us.

I welcome any comments, suggestions or feedback. Please either comment here or send an email to contact (at) mixosaurus (dot) co (dot) uk.

To “wage a war against all women”: Elliot Rodger, girls, women and corpus linguistics

Content warning: explicit discussion of misogyny, violence against women and racism.

This is a working paper currently being developed for publication – comments and feedback are very welcome!

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger's manifesto

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger’s manifesto

Like many people, I was shocked at the Isla Vista shootings. In an effort to understand what happened, I read – a lot. There is a collection of links about Elliot Rodger, rape culture and misogyny at the end of this post.

I then downloaded Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and approached it with corpus linguistic techniques. I first calculated keywords, then go on to examine girl, girls and wom?n in more detail.

This table shows the top 25 keywords when compared with the British National Corpus (BNC). A keyword occurs more frequently than we’d expect; in corpus linguistics, we work this out by comparing how often it occurs in a reference corpus (in this case, the BNC) with how often it occurs in the corpus we’re interested in. Words that are more key are more frequent in the target corpus than we’d expect from looking at the reference corpus.

N Word Frequency Keyness
1 I 5,926 13,752.69
2 my 2,501 9,101.61
3 me 1,544 4,546.97
4 didn’t 303 4,137.62
5 was 2,668 2,141.77
6 father’s 144 1,966.18
7 mother’s 105 1,433.64
8 girls 292 1,406.19
9 life 523 1,349.66
10 soumaya 97 1,324.40
11 couldn’t 96 1,310.74
12 I’ve 84 1,146.89
13 wasn’t 83 1,133.24
14 mother 292 935.53
15 would 841 862.82
16 isla 71 820.35
17 santa 115 794.72
18 house 359 754.95
19 father 236 702.35
20 topanga 52 700.05
21 vista 71 685.43
22 myself 192 672.68
23 barbara 105 648.11
24 friends 196 624.09
25 retribution 72 619.44

I’ve used the BNC because it’s a large general corpus that contains both speech and writing and which is balanced across different text types and genres. If I used a different reference corpus it would show me different things which may or may not be useful. Comparing Rodger’s manifesto with other manifestos written by ideologically-motivated murderers might be interesting, as would comparing the manifesto to other texts written by misogynists. However, the BNC does a decent job of highlighting both the individual characteristics of Rodger’s manifesto and a more general discourse of misogyny.

We have placenames like isla, vista, santa, topanga and barbara; words indicating family members and social relationships like mother’s, father’s, mother, father, Soumaya and friends; modal verbs like didn’t, was, couldn’t, wasn’t and would; and lots of first person pronouns like I, my, me, I’ve and myself. Finally, we have retribution, the name Elliot Rodger gave to the day of his attack. When we think about what kind of writing this is – a manifesto in which Rodger outlined his personal history, explained the worldview that led him to such an act of violence, and detailed his plans – this is unsurprising.

Girls shows up as the 8th most key term, while girl is only the 48th most key. I’m going to look at both, starting with girl. A girl can be pretty (14 occurrences), beautiful (11 occurrences), white (9 occurrences) or blonde (9 occurrences) but the bigram no girl appears 12 times and the trigram not one girl appears three times. Notably, a girl is something that happens or belongs to other people:

N	Concordance
1	ngle party because anyone would admit a beautiful girl into it, to make passionate love to her in my
2	gine how heavenly it would be to have a beautiful girl by my side. It is such a shameful tragedy. I 
3	and I walk in all alone. A man having a beautiful girl by his side shows the world that he is worth 
4	home. Why does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me? Why do girls hate me so? Questio
5	r to me if he walks into a store with a beautiful girl on his arm and I walk in all alone. A man hav
6	 the experience of holding hands with a beautiful girl and walking on a moonlit beach, I could never
7	lking back to my room in triumph with a beautiful girl on my arm, but instead I stumbled back to my 
8	watch another boy experience it, with a beautiful girl who should be mine, was a living hell. I cons
9	around in all of that excitement with a beautiful girl on my arm, to attend every single party becau
10	worth something, because obviously that beautiful girl sees some sort of worth in him. If a man is a
11	 look. I soon found out the name of the beautiful girl in my math class. Her name was Brittany Story

With the exception of line 11, the beautiful girl exists as a symbol of status and is usually found on her male partner’s arm or by his side. This is reflected in the cluster with a beautiful girl which makes up 5 of the 11 occurrences of beautiful girl. There doesn’t appear to be evidence of her agency, let alone her personality or individuality. Instead, she is rather like a bespoke suit or pair of expensive cufflinks. When Rodgers asked “[w]hy does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me?” it is without asking how he would love someone back.

We also find that a girl occurs 37 times and the girl occurs 11 times. Interestingly, the girl predominantly appears because Rodger noted that she is with someone else. The next set of concordance lines are longer so you can see that more clearly.

N	Concordance
1	    the man looked to be in his late 20's or early 30's, and the girl he was walking with looked like a supermodel. I assumed he w
2	 aside, trying to act cocky and arrogant to both the boy and the girl. My drunken state got the better of me, and I almost fell ov
3	rse towered over her. They were both wearing beach gear, and the girl was in her bikini, showing off to everyone her sensual, erec
4	cular young couple that stood out from the rest only because the girl looked absolutely perfect. She was tall, blonde, and sexy. S
5	I never admitted it to anyone. To be teased and ridiculed by the girl I had a crush on wounded me deeply. The world that I grew up
6	ed like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throe
7	en more angry is that Spencer gave me a smug look when I saw the girl, even though she was ugly. He had the nerve to feel like he 
8       rginity when he was only thirteen! In addition, he said that the girl he lost his virginity to was a blonde white girl! I was so e
9	  end place his hand on the girl's ass, and when he did this the girl looked at him and smiled with delight. That guy was in heave
10	so shocked and outraged that I waited outside his room until the girl left, so I could get a glimpse of how she looked. To my reli
11	d of girl who was always meant to be my girlfriend. This was the girl that I was meant to go through college in Santa Barbara with

Rodger focused on appearances, especially perceived disparities in attractiveness between women and the men they were with. We also see evidence of adjectives like blonde and white. While it is important to read Rodger’s actions in context of his misogyny, it is also important to acknowledge the role of race. The girls that Rodger focused on are tall, pretty, blonde and white; brown only appears in the context of martial arts (brown belt, 2 occurrences) and black in the context of skin colour (7 occurrences, all describing boys/men), a black carpet (5 occurrences), clothing (2 occurrences) and Rodger’s own black hair (3 occurrences). Dark is largely used metaphorically, and the only woman described as having dark hair is his father’s girlfriend (“I saw a woman with dark hair and fair skin standing in the kitchen, and she introduced herself as Soumaya”). Brunette only appears once and is used to describe his sister’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (“My sister even showed me a picture of one of his ex-girlfriends, a pretty brunette white girl”). Brunettes doesn’t appear at all. His stepmother, Soumaya, and his sister’s boyfriend are both people he resented, saw as an intrusion into his life, and who highlighted his lack of sexual experience compared to other members of his family.

It is also very clear from the data which women Rodger found attractive, that he conflated race and attractiveness, that the women he was most attracted to are also unambiguously white, and that he was deeply angered by ugly/black men having sex with beautiful/white women:

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself”

“If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”

Girls shows similar patterns: beautiful girls (23 occurrences), because girls (6 occurrences), blonde girls (11 occurrences), from girls (6 occurrences), hot girls (8 occurrences), no girls (4 occurrences), of girls (19 occurrences), pretty girls (15 occurrences), the girls (36 occurrences) and young girls (4 occurrences). Clusters show that more than one adjective can be used: beautiful blonde girls appears six times. Again, it is very very clear which women Rodger found attractive, and it’s also clear that he placed enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness. One gets the sense that Rodger constantly judged and assessed women based on their appearance – he wanted attention from the “hot”, status-conferring girls, and there is little evidence in these sets of collocates of girls who do not conform to his ideas of beauty.

So let’s have a closer look at the girls. We find the following make up 15 occurrences of the 36: all the girls (3 occurrences), all of the girls (6 occurrences), most of the girls (1 occurrence), none of the girls (1 occurrence), some of the girls (1 occurrence), one of the girls (2 occurrences) and two of the girls (1 occurrence). As the following quotes show, these occurrences continue to demonstrate Rodger’s belief that girls are a mark of a man’s status, power and prestige.

“They then had the audacity to tell me that they lost their virginity long ago, bragging about all the girls they had slept with”

“He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies”

“All of those popular boys must be punished for enjoying heavenly lives and having sex with all the girls while I had to suffer in lonely virginity”

As the following concordance lines demonstrate, Rodger discussed girls as a monolithic entity. They all dress alike, his friends pursue all of them, they all flock to the same boys – and, crucially, they all view him with disdain. This is highlighted in the case of none of the girls: Rodger complained that “[t]hey all started socializing right next to me, and none of the girls paid any attention to me”. Again, there is a strange lack of personality or individuality ascribed to these women.

1	in the faces of all the people who looked down on me, and all of the girls who thought of me as unworthy. I mused that once I beco
2	 and her sexy bare stomach showed as her shirt hung down. All of the girls were scantily clad. Rage boiled inside me as I watched 
3	e alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past. I quickly admir
4	aller than me. I had to suffer watching Julian sweet-talk all of the girls. He acted so confidently, and the way the pretty girl l
5	s confident and sure of myself as possible, thinking that all of the girls I passed were attracted to my appearance. They should b
6	re obnoxious jerks, and yet somehow it was these boys who all of the girls flocked to. This showed me that the world was a brutal

Something different happens when Rodger described one, two or some of the girls. In these cases, Rodger noted his sexual attraction to them, the things they do that sexually provoke him (importantly, this can be as innocuous as doing a handstand while messing around with your mates – if you are a “beautiful blonde girl”, then simply existing is a sexually provocative act for Rodger) and their interactions with other men.

N	Concordance
1	owed them for a few minutes. They just laughed at me, and one of the girls kissed the boy on the lips. I'm assuming she was his 
2	ooked like they were having so much fun playing together. One of the girls did a handstand in the grass, and her sexy bare stomach
3	 so much loneliness and humiliation. I was introduced to some of the girls he had sex with in the past, and they were all pretty.
4	lock of pretty girls with them. One of them sat down with two of the girls, putting his leg up on another chair with a cocky smirk

Reading the concordance lines, there is a strikingly lack of attempts by Rodger to engage with them. I found just one: “One time, as I was walking across the huge bridge that connected the two campuses, I passed by a girl I thought was pretty and said “Hi” as we neared each other. She kept on walking and didn’t even have the grace to respond to me. How dare she! That foul bitch”. Instead, girls are remote, distant – a monolithic entity that constantly rejected and humiliated Rodger yet to which he remained sexually attracted to. To Rodger, the actions of one reflect on them all; the rejection from some girls is a rejection from all girls.

If girl and girls are constantly described in terms of their sexual attractiveness and callousness, with Rodger caught between rage, self-pity and arousal, then wom?n is where his hatred of women is really displayed. Here, the ? in wom?n is a single character wildcard that means that results for both woman and women are included. There are 86 occurrences of wom?n in all.

Unlike girl and girls, there are only a few references to appearance. There are 4 occurrences of beautiful wom?n, 1 occurrence of beautiful model wom?n and 1 occurrence of gorgeous wom?n…and that’s it. There are a couple of references to nationality: German wom?n (2 occurrences) and French wom?n (1 occurrence), and one to race: African American woman.

Interestingly, there are two occurrences of love women, but as the quotes show, this love comes with conditions:

“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred. I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me. It is such an injustice, and I vehemently questioned why things had to be this way. Why do women behave like vicious, stupid, cruel animals who take delight in my suffering and starvation? Why do they have a perverted sexual attraction for the most brutish of men instead of gentlemen of intelligence?”

“All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy”

While Rodger claimed to want to “love women”, this is quickly turned into further justification for his sense of victimisation and his rage. It’s difficult to imagine being able to love someone you can describe as “vicious, stupid, cruel animals”. As seen in girl and girls, Rodger focused on the men he perceived all women as being attracted to – “the most brutish of men” – and clearly positioned himself as superior, again reflecting the hierarchies he constructed and his belief that those further up the hierarchy deserved sex.

Most of the collocates of wom?n are fairly low frequency with the exception of all women and of women. Low frequency collocates include strike against women (1 occurrence), war against women (2 occurrences), degenerate women (1 occurrence), naked women (1 occurrence) and punishing women (1 occurrence). A clear semantic preference for physical violence emerges with mention ofwar against, strike against and punishing, with a second semantic preference for sexual judgement. Women are described as wicked and degenerate and naked occurs in the context of a porn video by which Rodger is simultaneously aroused and repulsed (“human beings doing such weird and unspeakable things with each other revolted me”).

Concordance lines for all women are below.

N	Concordance
1	ly abolish sex, women themselves would have to be abolished. All women must be quarantined like the plague they are, so that they 
2	 the popular young people who never accepted me, and against all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex. At this p
3	I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter the
4	  rve. If I can't have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer 
5	something to fantasize about as I burned with hatred towards all women for rejecting me throughout the years. This whole viewpoint
6	r boyfriend only increased my already boiling hatred towards all women. I could not leave my apartment without seeing at least a f
7	 who deprived me of love and sex. My hatred and rage towards all women festered inside me like a plague. Their very existence is t

As these concordance lines show, women are again conflated into a single entity, one that is responsible for provoking Rodger into such violent acts. He railed against “all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex” and threatened to “destroy all women because I can never have them” and “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to”. Of the seven concordance lines above, three reinstate his “hatred” or “hatred and rage” directed at all women.

However, Rodger firmly believed that women had brought it on themselves and were responsible for their own destruction. There are 11 occurrences of of women

1	ous men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magn
2	rience it all alone, while other men get to enjoy the company of women. I had nothing left to live for but revenge. Women must be 
3	y teenage years were completely denied to me by the cruelness of women. The only way I could make up for it was if I could have an
4	 I was ready and capable of fighting back against the cruelty of women. Back when I was a weak and timid boy at Taft High School, 
5	ows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort d
6	 the best. If a man grows up without knowing of the existence of women, there will be no desire for sex. Sexuality will completely
7	  ng with all of the injustices I've had to face at the hands of women and society. I came up with a name for this after I saw all
8	r, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don't fancy me, because their sexual attract
9	  he rejection and mistreatment I've experienced at the hands of women, I knew that becoming wealthy was the only way I could beco
10	what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. 
11	  irls hate me so much?" in which I ask the entire population of women the question I've wanted to ask them for so many years. W

Women are positioned as cruel and evil, but also powerful; Rodger railed against the injustices (1 occurrence), rejection (2 occurrences), humiliation (1 occurrence) and mistreatment (1 occurrence) he felt he experienced at the hands of women.

So what were girls and women to Elliot Rodger? The evidence from his manifesto seems to indicate that Rodger was deeply conflicted about them. They were simultaneously: beautiful, hot bestowers of status on their male companions and the yardstick by which a man could measure his worth; fickle, callous creatures who snubbed him; cruel, evil and deliberately withholding the love and sex which Rodger felt was his right; wholly vicious and deserving of hatred and destruction. In Rodger’s manifesto, women are not individuals, but are completely united in their rejection of him.

There’s obviously a lot more in the paper I’m developing for publication, but I hope that this post offers a an insight into how looking at just four terms can be very revealing.

Further reading:
Elliot Rodgers
What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s horrific manifesto, “My Twisted World,” says about his values—and ours
“Gay or Asian?” Race, Masculinity, and the UCSB Shooting
On Continuing to Live In the Same World that Made Elliot Rodger (and Many Like Him)

Rape culture
A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture
Fat Girl PhD: The things we tell our girls
Girl On The Net: On whether you have a right to sex
Slut-shamed to death for saying yes to sex, murdered for saying no

Misogyny
Storify: Yes, All Men
Elliot Rodger’s California shooting spree: further proof that misogyny kills
Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism
A Look Inside the ‘Men’s Rights’ Movement That Helped Fuel California Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger
Elliot Rodger was a misogynist – but is that all he was?
Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives
Lessons From a Day Spent With the UCSB Shooter’s Awful Friends
‘PUAhate’ and ‘ForeverAlone’: inside Elliot Rodger’s online life
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds
On the Geek Guys’ Elliot Rodger Think Pieces
#YesAllWomen: how Twitter reacted to the shootings in California
Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny: Men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience

The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:

When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

The white male professor is in

Perhaps presciently, in my penultimate post I noted that “[a]s a student, I have never been taught by someone with a non-European non-white background – and when I teach, I am incredibly aware that this may have been the case for my students”. This week, UCU released a report focusing on women and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) professors:

UCU summary
Report: The position of women and BME staff in professorial roles in UK HEIs (pdf)
Guardian: The university professor is always white

Some of the figures they highlight include:

  • Just one in five professors are women, despite making up almost half the non-professorial academic workforce
  • Just one in 14 professors (7.3%) are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background
  • White applicants are three times more likely to get a professorial post than BME applicants

Naturally, I find these figures troubling – and, if I’m honest, not a little dispiriting.

The UCU report notes that BME UK nationals are particularly underrepresented – unfortunately, their data isn’t presented in a particularly helpful way to interpret this. Universities are brilliant places for worldwide collaboration and I’ve been lucky enough to work with people from all over the world. However, I do think it’s worth focusing on UK nationals because it highlights failings in our own education system and university recruitment processes. Appointing more international BME academics would be great for diversity but I’m also concerned that it would lead to universities failing to take a very careful look at recruitment of UK BME academics and the barriers that stand in their way.

As a recent example, this article on discrepancies in attainment between BME and white students was published two months ago. I find that really troubling – to me, if this is happening across an entire cohort of students, it suggests that something is going wrong at an institutional level. And crucially, if BME students are leaving university without the Firsts and 2.1s necessary for postgraduate study, that suggests problems for a future generation of UK BME academics – namely, that they won’t be there.

There are a few points I’d like to make about the report.

  • Firstly, while the UCU breaks down figures into “Black”, “Asian”, “Chinese”, “Other Asian” and “Other” it’s not clear how these groups are defined – who, exactly, is included in the “Other” groups? The terminology itself is…less than sensitive (we’ve heard of post-colonialism and Othering yeah?). For that matter, it’s not clear who’s included in the “Asian” category – I’m assuming people of Indian origin, but what about people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan origin? To me, there’s a lack of clarity about who was included in the report.
  • Secondly, this is the sort of area where an intersectional analysis would be really helpful; basically, what happens to applicants who are BME and women? Is their experience of institutional discrimination on two fronts reflected in their employment rates, or is something else happening?
  • Thirdly, a breakdown by subject area and discipline would be beneficial. My gut instinct is that STEM subjects might be a bit better than art and humanities at employing Asian and Chinese professors, but without data I’m wary of generalising in such a way.

I think this is a useful starting point but there are so many questions this report doesn’t answer. It’s clear that there is massive underrepresentation of women and BME academics at the highest level of academia – are universities going to do anything about that?

P.S. Thank you Nina Simone

Cis: a brief introduction

This is probably going to be the first of at least two posts about the response to the Moore-Burchill article and fallout. In this one, I want to talk about the term “cis” and objections to it, and in a future post I want to talk about the media framing. There might be some other stuff if anything strikes me.

One of the fascinating (for me at least) things about the ongoing Moore-Burchill thing is the issues of language, identity and power. There’s a real tussle over words – hate speech, slurs, violence, identity. A lot of it is to do with who gets to use which words.

Firstly, objections to the word “cis”.

I have to admit that I’m hiding a dark and shameful secret here: I have an A-level in Chemistry. Not a good one, but it meant that I first came across cis and trans when talking about isomers. Basically, an isomer has a carbon double bond in the middle which means it can’t rotate on that axis. This means that the molecules attached to the carbon atoms can’t swing around. It’s actually a really nice illustration, so have a very quick diagram (and don’t laugh at my lack of artistic skill).

cis and trans isomers

Cis and trans isomers (image by K Gupta)

As you can see in the cis isomer in figure 1, the yellow molecules are on the same side and the green molecules are on the same side. And that’s all cis means: “on the same side”. In the trans isomer in figure 2, the yellow molecules are across from one another, as are the green molecules. And that’s all that trans means: “on the other side” or “across”.

When we talk about gender, we use cis to describe people whose assigned sex and gender identity are in alignment and trans to describe people whose assigned sex and gender identity aren’t in alignment. The diagram below shows this:

Cis and trans genders

Obviously this isn’t (and cannot be) a perfect representation of the complex relationship between assigned sex at birth and gender identity, but it will do as a starting point and hopefully makes things clearer.

Cis is simply trying to give a name to a certain set of experiences. Actually being able to put a name to this set of experiences is important. The term is not an insult or a term of derision.

One of the problems here is that there are words to describe minority experiences but not necessary words to describe majority experiences. If we don’t have words for majority experiences, it makes them even more pervasive and normalised. For example, if we don’t have words to describe white people or heterosexual people or able-bodied people, then people who are not these things exist as a marked experience – as something unusual or Other. Many feminists quite rightly object to terms like “lady doctor” or “female doctor” because it assumes that doctors are male, and any deviance has to be carefully noted and expressed. My mum, a doctor, once made a home visit accompanied by a nurse. When she got there, she was taken aback to find that the nurse was being addressed as the doctor – because he happened to be male. The assumption was that if there’s a doctor and a nurse and one of them happens to be a man and the other a woman, then the man is the doctor and the woman is the nurse. Prejudices like this are reinforced by gender marked terms like “lady doctor” or “woman police constable”.

Similarly, if a white person said “I don’t like being called white, I’m just a normal person” I’d be annoyed because that suggests that their white experience is the default – that normal people are white, and that non-white people are somehow not normal. There’s an additional dynamic at work with people who say “I don’t like being called cis, I’m just a normal woman” because it actively positions normal women as those who were assigned female at birth and in doing so, rejects that trans woman can also be “normal women”. While I’m sure some objectors genuinely do reject trans woman as women, I’m also confident that many more simply haven’t thought about their use of language and are unaware of the implications. There is nothing bad about being described as “cis” just as there’s nothing bad about being described as “white” or as “able-bodied”. It just means giving a name to the majority experience and in doing so, shifts it away from being the default experience.

As a linguist, I also find Julie Burchill’s objection to cis as “sounds like syph, cyst, cistern” kind of hilarious. As Tony McEnery notes, “the sounds in a word such as shit seem no more unusual, and combine together in ways no more interesting, than those in shot, ship or sit“; just because a word sounds a bit like other words doesn’t mean it has anything to do with them in terms of meaning.

As a pedant with access to the Oxford English Dictionary (a dangerous combination), I note that syph is an abbreviation of syphilis, itself apparently derived from “Syphilus, the name of a shepherd in the poem Syphilis, sive Morbvs Gallicvs (‘Syphilis, or the French disease’), supposedly the first sufferer from the disease. Cyst is derived from cystis from the Greek κύστις, meaning “bladder”. And cistern is derived, through the Old French cisterne, from the Latin cisterna, meaning “a subterraneous reservoir”. While these words sound similar, they have very different origins, histories and usages. It’s rather disingenuous to take offence at a word simply because it sounds like another word that means something unpleasant.

To reinforce my point, I note that the Guardian/Observer Comment is Free section is often referred to with an acronym: Cif. Which also happens to be a popular brand of bathroom cleaner. Isn’t the arbitrariness of language great?

References:
McEnery, T. (2006) Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London: Routledge

National Coming Out Day

Be the trouble you want to see in the world

The t-shirt I’m wearing today

Today marks National Coming Out Day and my facebook and twitter feeds have been full of the wonderful, brave people I know announcing their LGBTQ identities. Somewhat predictably, I have complicated thoughts on the topic.

Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty.

They both note that coming out is also not a single event where you burst from the closet in a shower of rainbows and glitter. Instead it’s a process of coming out to lots of people. I’m inclined to think there’s a difference between coming out to your family and friends and coming out at university, at work, to your GP and, should you get your relationship legally recognised, legally as well as in your social relations. There are no rules on who you should be out to, in what order you should come out to various people – you might tick a box in a university diversity survey before you tell your family, for example – and how long this process should take. It won’t ever end, but it’s your choice whether you tell people immediately, gradually, or at all.

However, coming out is not necessarily easy or straightforward, especially if one must negotiate religious and/or cultural issues. There are lots of people for whom coming out is difficult and dangerous, and I worry that days like these put pressure on people to come out when it’s not safe to do so. There’s a particular kind of sadness when you see people proudly declaring their sexuality and gender identities and knowing that you cannot join them in that.

I’ve been reading Avory’s post on the problem with the LGBT movement’s obsession with coming out and Hasan El Menyawi’s 2006 discussion of coming out in Egypt, the globalisation of a US-centric narrative of coming out and activism from the closet. El Menyawi reconceptualises the closet as a place of safety and community, with flexible, ever-expanding walls. He argues that “activism from the closet occurs by publicly hiding — covering — one’s gay identity outside of the collective closet, but still actively engaging in activism — hidden activism”. Such hidden activism may involve campaigning on privacy rights, questioning the close relationship between religion and the state, or activism on issues such as “economic revitalisation, democracy, rule of law, and human rights more generally”. Avory expands this idea, observing that “there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption”.

So while coming out is brave and important, let us not devalue the closet, and let us not forget those for whom the closet is shelter and protection rather than confinement.