Can there be a genderless voice?

Back in the 1990s, I worked at a university where my office was half way up a tower block. There were two lifts, and both had voices—one female and the other male. ‘Sixth floor’, they would announce; ‘doors opening!’ But though their scripts were identical, their personalities were not. The female voice, soft and slightly breathy, addressed the occupants of the lift in a warm and soothing tone. The male voice was very different: there was something officious, even hectoring, about its gruff, staccato delivery. These lift-voices, in other words, were gendered as well as sexed, performing a highly stereotypical version of femininity or masculinity.

These vocal stereotypes weren’t new. In the 1980s, when talking cars were all the rage, Chrysler made one which became famous for the stern, almost parodically deep male voice in which it issued warnings and commands. Its most iconic line, much ridiculed at the time and later immortalized by the Kronos Quartet, was ‘a door is ajar’ (you can listen to some more of its output here). Some models used a female voice, but not all drivers responded well to what they perceived as her nagging (‘fasten your seatbelt!’ ‘The washer fluid is low!’): she was nicknamed ‘Bitching Betty’.

Technology has advanced since then, and disembodied voices are everywhere; but we still seem to associate male voices with authority and female ones with deferential service. During a recent three-day period when I kept a record, I encountered only one disembodied male voice, making a security announcement on the London Underground. The other voices I heard–in lifts, shopping centres, supermarkets, trains and buses–belonged to women who all sounded very similar: white, middle-class (though not aggressively posh), under rather than over 45, and ‘feminine’ in the same ways as the 1990s lift voice. Their speech was generally quite soft, often a touch breathy, and pitched in the mid-to-low part of the female range. In many cases it also had a definite hint of ‘smiley voice’ (smiling can be heard even when the smile itself can’t be seen).

The persona this voice constructs is warm, helpful and ‘approachable’–all, we might think, desirable qualities in someone who’s providing a service. But why are they so often voiced by a woman rather than a man? Would a soft, smiley male voice sound too eager to please? Would a man who spoke in those warm, breathy tones sound inappropriately …well, sexual? As the journalist Barbara Ellen observed recently in a piece about the dress codes imposed on flight attendants, female service workers are often expected to present themselves in a covertly sexualized way. Whereas men can satisfy the demand to look ‘smart’ or ‘well-groomed’ just by wearing a jacket and tie, for women those same words may be code for donning heels, tight skirts and full make-up. It’s the same with vocal self-presentation: for women, ‘approachable’ can become a euphemism for sounding, as Ellen puts it, ‘semi-sexually available’.

This issue has become more salient since the advent of a new kind of disembodied voice, that of the ‘virtual assistant’ who lives in your home or in your smartphone. Whereas we don’t interact with talking lifts and cars, our relationship with Alexa, Cortana and Siri is more personal: one recent study which interviewed people about their use of voice technology found that  ‘Alexa, in particular, was often treated as a member of the family, brought into conversations, and asked for “her” opinions’.

The ‘engaging’ personality which has helped to make Alexa the current market leader is clearly gendered. She’s like a male chauvinist’s dream girlfriend: not just warm and helpful with a quirky sense of humour, but also a good listener who only speaks when she is spoken to. She was originally conceived as female, and it was not until 2018, four years after the product was launched, that Amazon gave users the option of switching to a male voice. (Even then, the default setting has remained female.) Apple has offered male voices for longer, but most users prefer the female Siri. That also seems to be true of the nameless Google Assistant, which, like Alexa, started out exclusively female but launched a male-voiced alternative in 2018.

What’s behind this preference? The industry maintains that customers prefer female voices because they’re ‘warmer and more relatable’–an answer that, even if it’s true, begs the question of why we find female voices more ‘relatable’ than male ones. In other situations we clearly don’t: on planes I’ve seen people blanch when addressed by a female pilot. What these biases really reflect is our cultural beliefs about gender roles. We understand that the function of a virtual assistant, like that of a real-life PA, is to make life easier for someone more important; and we think of that as prototypically a woman’s job.

Some feminists have expressed concern about the increasing number of households where children as well as adults are interacting with disembodied female servants. Welcoming the introduction of male-voice options for Alexa and the Google Assistant, one writer suggested that

bossing around a not just female-voiced assistant seems like a healthy step in teaching [children] gender equality and eliminating traditional gender role expectations.

Well, maybe—but arguably the effect will be limited if the voices themselves remain gender-differentiated in the ways I’ve already described. Though male-voiced assistants may challenge the belief that role itself is female, people will still be getting the message that women have to sound ‘warmer and more relatable’ than men performing the same tasks. Is it time to consider a more radical approach—giving voices to machines that have no gender or sex at all?

That was the aim of a team of researchers who recently unveiled Q, described as ‘the world’s first genderless voice assistant’. As they explain on their website,

Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it. Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress. As society continues to break down the gender binary, recognising those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.

Q was developed by digitally altering the voice of a single speaker (possibly, though it’s not entirely clear, one who ‘neither identified as male nor female’), and the most obvious alteration relates to fundamental frequency (F0)—what we mean when we talk in general terms about pitch. After puberty, when the hormone-induced lengthening and thickening of the vocal folds causes boys’ voices to ‘break’ and become lower, there is a significant difference between the average F0 of men and women (though their pitch ranges overlap, and the mean values move closer as people age). Q has been made to speak with an F0 of 145–175Hz, which is in between the male and female averages (these are usually taken to be approximately 120Hz for men and 210Hz for women). To hear how the voice sounds, have a listen to this clip.

Does Q’s voice sound genderless to you? It doesn’t to me: I hear Q as a woman, albeit one with an unusually low-pitched voice. And in this I’m apparently not alone. When the neuroscientist Sophie Scott tweeted out the clip and invited responses, most people who commented thought Q sounded female. The name ‘Q’, unlike ‘Alexa’ or ‘Cortana’, gives no steer in that direction, and nor does anything the voice says. So, what is it that gave us the impression of femaleness?

It could be a lot of things: while F0 is an important clue to sex, it’s not the only one. Some experiments have shown that if you present people with recordings of a male and a female speaker producing the same sound at the same F0, they’re still pretty good at telling the difference. What they’re probably responding to is a number of subtler differences, some of them related to anatomical factors (e.g., as well as having thicker vocal folds than women, men also have longer vocal tracts) while others are more sociocultural. For instance, a number of studies have found that there’s gender-linked variation in the way English /s/ sounds are pronounced—with the tongue further forward or further back in the mouth. To my ear, the pronunciation of /s/ in the clip suggests femaleness; so does the pronunciation of /t/; so, mostly, does the voice quality. So, while Q’s F0 is ambiguous, there’s other information a listener can use.

In fact, ‘can use’ may be a misleading way to put it: it might be more a case of ‘can’t help using’. Distinguishing male from female voices is something we’re able to do from infancy: even if it isn’t ‘natural’, it’s an ingrained and habitual response. Is it possible to make a voice that people will perceive as ‘genderless’? And what do Q’s designers actually mean by that?

As I said when I was talking about the 1990s lifts, voices are both sexed (shaped by characteristics of the male or female body) and gendered (influenced by cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity). When Q’s designers describe their creation as ‘genderless’, I think they’re probably using ‘gender’ to cover both; but in practice they seem to have concentrated on characteristics which are primarily related to sex. This is possible when you’re using technology to create a virtual voice, but it wouldn’t be so easy for an embodied human speaker. Though there are some things humans can do with their bodies that will perceptibly change their voices (for instance, a female-bodied person who takes testosterone will develop a deeper voice), how they sound will also depend on things that can’t be altered, such as the size and thickness of the skull, the length of the vocal tract and the capacity of the lungs.

Speakers have more flexibility to alter their vocal performance of gender. This is what speech therapists who work with trans women tend to focus on: developing gendered speech-habits that communicate femininity (for instance, articulating certain sounds further forward in the mouth, or using a breathier voice quality). But for people who do not want to sound gendered in any way, the question of what to alter is more complicated. What does ‘genderless’ sound like? I don’t think we have a model, and we evidently don’t find it easy to process human speech without using (binary) sex and gender as reference points. On Twitter and elsewhere, people who’d listened to the ‘Meet Q’ clip invariably compared it with their mental templates for men and women: though they didn’t all come to the same conclusions (most thought the voice was female, but some thought it might belong to a young and/or gay man), no one said they heard Q as simply neutral or unclassifiable.

It’s also instructive to consider our perceptions of the voices given to real or fictional non-human entities. Daleks, for example: as far as I know they don’t have sex or gender,  but I’m sure most people who’ve ever heard one would agree that their loud, harsh and monotonous low-pitched voices sound male and masculine rather than female/feminine. That doesn’t mean, however, that people perceive Daleks as literally male. They understand the Dalek-voice as a metaphor, signifying qualities like aggression, ruthlessness and lack of empathy.

In the clip I’ve linked to above, the actor who voices the Daleks also demonstrates how he varies their voices to symbolize their place in the hierarchy. When he gives orders in the voice of the Supreme Dalek he speaks forcefully, using a markedly low pitch; when he voices the subordinate Dalek’s response, ‘I obey’, the voice is lighter and pitched much higher. Though both voices are male-sounding, the second is ‘feminised’ by comparison with the first. This is another example of the conventionalised use of sex/gender differences to stand metaphorically for other differences–notably, as in this case, asymmetries of power and status.

We could also consider the nonfictional Yuki, a humanoid robot used as a teaching assistant at a German university. Yuki’s creators have decided to make their robot male (its human handlers use the pronoun ‘he’), but they haven’t given it a masculine voice: it sounds like a child who could be of either sex. Once again, the point is not to present Yuki as a literal child (who would want a six-year old giving them feedback on their homework?) Rather it’s to capitalise on the associations of the child-voice, encouraging the students who will interact with Yuki to perceive him as cute and unthreatening.

Having given their robot this voice, the designers could in theory have left its sex/gender unspecified. But in that case, what would students make of Yuki? Would they identify the robot as male by default (the same way people automatically refer to any animal that isn’t self-evidently female, from the squirrel in the garden to the hippo at the zoo, as ‘he’)? Would they take it to be male because it’s a robot, a piece of hi-tech hardware? Would they conclude it must be female because it acts as a human man’s assistant? I don’t know, but I think all these scenarios are more likely than the scenario in which they would simply leave the question open. Some roboticists have argued that it’s unethical to give robots a gender, especially where that might encourage vulnerable people to think of them as human, and perhaps develop feelings for them that they can’t reciprocate. But I don’t think it will be easy to stop people anthropomorphising robots, and therefore ascribing sex/gender to them. Especially, perhaps, if they talk.

By now you’ll have gathered that I’m sceptical about the concept of a genderless (and/or sexless) voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the status quo. While I have no problem with the existence of identifiably male and female voices, I do think there’s a need to diversify the ways those voices perform gender, and in particular to move away from the female voice I described earlier, the one the industry calls ‘warm and relatable’, and which I call ‘subservient with a hint of sexual availability’.

I’d like to hear a balance of male and female voices (of all ages, and with a range of accents) both in public space and in digital devices, and fewer female voices which have been manipulated, either by technology or by the speakers themselves, to sound softer, warmer, lower or breathier. The woman who informs you of your impending arrival at King’s Cross is not your mother, nor is she auditioning for a porn movie. The way she speaks should reflect the setting and the message–not some voice designer’s fantasy of femininity.

Should we also be embracing synthetic voices like Q’s? Maybe: I don’t think a lift or a virtual assistant needs to sound like a real person. But we shouldn’t imagine that this will automatically take gender out of the equation. A voice doesn’t have to be perceived as human to be (metaphorically) gendered. Nor should we forget that the binary is also a hierarchy. In practice, what’s presented as ‘gender neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ will often be interpreted as male by default. That’s one reason why I don’t see creating genderless voices as a solution to the problem of sexism. Presenting people with voices they don’t recognise as female does nothing to challenge their sexist ideas about how actual female voices should sound.

Q, of course, was not designed to do that: what its makers wanted to challenge was binary perceptions of gender. But it still seems ironic that they ended up creating something which is not a million miles from the stereotypical female service-voice. I would rather have Q than some of the smiley-voiced fembots you hear telling you that ‘all our agents are busy’, or trying to sell you replacement windows. But if we want to change the attitudes that make Miss Smiley-Voice and Ms Warm-and-Relatable such ubiquitous vocal presences, I think we’ve still got a long way to go.



Coming to terms with the past: what should we call Anne Lister?

This summer the city of York got its first LGBT history plaque, dedicated to the 19th century landowner Anne Lister.  It was placed at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister and her partner Ann Walker took part in an unofficial marriage ceremony.

In the course of her life Anne Lister had numerous sexual and romantic relationships with women, as we know from her voluminous diaries, which were partly written in code to conceal the details. Since they were decoded in the 1980s Lister has been regarded as a significant figure in British lesbian history. To people already familiar with her story, therefore, it came as something of a surprise that the word ‘lesbian’ did not appear on the commemorative plaque. Instead the local LGBT group which was responsible for the wording chose to describe Lister as ‘a gender non-conforming entrepreneur’.

The pushback was immediate: many objectors visited the group’s Facebook page to protest, and a petition proclaiming ‘Anne Lister was a lesbian: don’t let them erase her story’ attracted over two thousand signatures. In the face of these complaints the York Civic Trust undertook to review the wording of the plaque. They have now opened a public consultation which invites people to choose between the original phraseology and an alternative that refers to Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.

Both these options are open to the charge of anachronism, projecting present-day concepts and identity categories back into the historical past. Though Anne Lister clearly understood herself as someone who desired women, she had no access to the conceptual frameworks that enable or even oblige us, 200 years later, to classify individuals in terms of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously argued that the modern notion of ‘the homosexual’ only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, he maintained, discourse on sex focused on what people did rather than what or who they were; but the advent of a ‘scientific’ approach brought a new interest in explaining sexual behaviour as an expression of people’s underlying (and in the case of homosexuals, ‘deviant’) nature. ‘The 19th century homosexual’, wrote Foucault,

became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. …It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: the homosexual was now a species.

From this perspective, labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are not just names for categories which have always existed in essentially the same form, just with different (or no) words attached to them. The terms come into existence along with the categories, and both are effects of the production of knowledge, which in modern societies, Foucault argues, is inextricably bound up with power and control. It follows that the problem of anachronism in language is both real and intractable. And as numerous commenters pointed out, the compromise chosen by the York LGBT group in the case of Anne Lister—describing her as ‘gender non-conforming’—is not really a satisfactory solution.

The group acknowledged that in practice the label ‘gender non-conforming’ is most often applied to people who identify as trans, non-binary or queer. But in principle, they argued, it could be used to describe ‘a broad range of identities, expression and behaviours that are non-normative and/or marginalised by a particular society or culture at a particular moment in time’. The implication seemed to be that whereas ‘lesbian’ names a specific identity that has only existed in some times and places, ‘gender non-conforming’ is more generally applicable: it says only that the person so labelled deviated in some way from whatever gender norms prevailed in their society.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this. One problem with the broad definition of ‘gender non-conforming’ is that it’s too broad (is there anyone on earth who has never deviated in any way from the prevailing norms of masculinity or femininity?). But in addition, the claim that it avoids anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny. There’s nothing timeless and universal about either the phrase ‘gender non-conforming’ or the assumptions embedded in it.

For one thing, its meaning depends on a sense of the word ‘gender’ which did not become established in English until the mid-20th century. We can be confident that Anne Lister wouldn’t have described herself as ‘gender non-conforming’. If that’s our criterion, incidentally, it’s also unlikely she would have called herself an ‘entrepreneur’. According to the OED, the relevant sense of that word, meaning the owner/manager of a business, did not appear in print until more than a decade after her death. (One critic of the plaque remarked that the overall effect of ‘gender non-conforming entrepreneur’ was to make Lister sound less like a 19th century landowner and more like the recipient of an award for the year’s most successful LGBT start-up.)

But perhaps all this agonising about anachronism is beside the point. A commemorative plaque is not a thesis: its purpose is to make whatever it commemorates intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience. We memorialise historical figures like Anne Lister because of what they mean to us now, and the choices we make about how to do it, including what terminology to use, are always going to be shaped by what’s at stake for us in the present.

For most of those who got involved in it, what was at stake in the debate about the wording of the plaque was not some abstract theoretical point about the applicability of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to a person who lived 200 years ago. The issue was rather why one of those anachronistic terms had been preferred to the other, and what that said about contemporary attitudes to lesbians.

The commonest objection to the original wording was that, like the code Anne Lister used in her diaries, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to downplay if not conceal her sexuality. Why, critics demanded, was lesbianism being treated as the love whose name could not be spoken? Is the idea of sex between women still so shocking or revolting that it can only be alluded to in the vaguest and most ambiguous terms? But while I’m sure there are people who shy away from the L-word because of basic anti-lesbian prejudice, I wouldn’t expect to find them in an LGBT forum. In this case I think it’s more likely the group had a different reason for finding ‘lesbian’ problematic–a reason that was spelled out last year in a much-debated Buzzfeed article which asked, ‘Can lesbian identity survive the gender revolution?’

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

Attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. …Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?

Not surprisingly, this article was controversial. Many lesbians were less than delighted to be dismissed as ‘stale and stodgy’, and some were vocal in their criticisms. Nevertheless, I think it’s true that the emphasis placed on gender identity in contemporary LGBT politics has affected the way sexuality is thought about. In particular, it has led to the adoption in some quarters of the principle that sexual orientation should be defined in relation to gender identity rather than sex. This opens up the possibility that someone like the ‘gender non-conforming’ Lister might not have been (that is, felt herself to be) a woman; and if she wasn’t a woman then her attraction to women wouldn’t make her a lesbian. If the York group was applying this logic, that would explain their otherwise puzzling reluctance to use the L-word.

This particular way of understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality is a relatively recent development, and as we saw in the row about the plaque, it remains highly contested. But the questions it grapples with are not new, and nor is their capacity to cause conflict.

Fifty years ago when I was growing up, homosexuality was commonly understood as a form of gender deviance or ‘inversion’. That was how my parents explained it to me: homosexual men and lesbian women were people who felt and behaved like members of the opposite sex. This mid-20th century common sense reflected the expert theories of an earlier period. The term ‘invert’ had been used by the 19th century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and the concept was popularised in Radclyffe Hall’s early 20th century novel The Well of Loneliness. It also shaped the way homosexuals were depicted in mainstream popular culture (something my parents and I were more directly acquainted with)–most commonly as effeminate, campy ‘queens’.

But by the end of the 1960s this understanding was being challenged. The new gay liberation movement promoted the idea that gender and sexuality were distinct and independent–a view championed in particular by younger, middle-class activists who found the association of homosexuality with effeminacy embarrassing, and saw it as an obstacle to achieving social acceptance. In a 1972 piece entitled ‘The fairy princess exposed’,  the gay liberationist Craig Alfred Hanson denounced the old-style queens as ‘relics of a bygone era in their fantasy world of poodle dogs and Wedgwood teacups’. Though these ‘relics’ were unlikely to change their ways, the movement needed to ‘expose our Princess Flora Femadonna so that our younger brothers will not fall into the lavender cesspool’.

As this rhetoric makes clear, there were divisions and tensions within the emerging gay ‘community’: not everyone had the same ideas about what it meant to be gay or what would constitute ‘liberation’. Lesbians had their own version of the conflict dramatised in Hanson’s attack on the ‘fairy princess’: as I noted in an earlier post, the new generation of lesbian feminists were often critical of the older culture of butch-fem relationships, which they saw as aping heterosexuality and reproducing traditional gender roles. Like their gay male comrades, they wanted to challenge the idea that same-sex desire was integrally bound up with gender deviance (or to put it another way, that all desire was fundamentally heterosexual–that every sexual relationship must involve a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ partner, even if they were both women or both men).

Today we are seeing another shift in ideas about the relationship between sex and gender, identity and desire—one which is also exposing divisions within the community. I’m not suggesting this is a straightforward case of history repeating itself (or reversing itself), but the questions being raised are not completely unfamiliar either. In some form or other, they may even have been questions for Anne Lister and the people around her in the first half of the 19th century.

But that isn’t what’s at issue in the dispute about the wording of her commemorative plaque. What the plaque will show, whatever it ends up saying, is not how Anne Lister defined herself, but how we have chosen to define her. And what makes that so contentious is not what we can’t know about the past, it’s what we don’t agree on in the present.

Note: at the time of writing it is still possible to respond to the consultation about the plaque: if you want to read the background information and then register a view on the competing options you can do so here.  

2017: the year in language and feminism

Back in 2015, in this blog’s first end-of-year round-up, I noted that the year had started inauspiciously, with Time magazine putting ‘feminism’ on its list of annoying words that deserved to be banned.  The label was overused, they said; celebrities in particular were guilty of ‘throwing it around like ticker-tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade’.

To say that the mood has changed since then would be an understatement. No-one seemed surprised when a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, named ‘feminism’ as its Word of the Year. ‘Feminism’, the announcement explained, was one of the most looked-up words of 2017, and spikes in the number of look-ups coincided with important news stories, from the anti-Trump women’s marches in January to the #metoo campaign this autumn. As for Time, its current cover features ‘the silence breakers’–a group of women, feminists, and in some cases celebrities, who spoke out about sexual harassment and who have collectively been chosen as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

But I’m not feeling the urge to crack a bottle of celebratory champagne. While it’s good to see the F-word being used without apology, it’s hard to avoid the rather depressing conclusion that what has done most to raise feminism’s profile over the last 12 months is the resurgence of an equally unapologetic anti-feminism. This was not a year when women forged ahead, it was a year when things got bad enough to prompt them to fight back. The display of defiance was cheering; the conditions that produced it were not.

Those conditions were reflected in what I blogged about this year. Looking back, I see that one recurring theme was the way women are let down by the language used to report or comment on sexual harassment, abuse and violence. In July I wrote about the banal sexism of the clichés used in reporting so-called ‘family tragedies’, where a man kills his partner and their children, and sometimes follows this by taking his own life. Later, as attention focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the Houses of Parliament and in a host of more ‘ordinary’ workplaces, I criticised the media’s use of vague, euphemistic terms like ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Without denying that this is a challenging subject to report on, I’m increasingly convinced that wrapping the ugly realities up in bland, inexplicit language is not the answer. It doesn’t help the ‘silence-breakers’ to feel heard, nor the wider public to understand what’s really happening. What inexplicitness does do, however–and we’ve seen plenty of examples–is make it easier for defenders of the status quo to minimise the problem or recycle popular myths about what causes it (Will Saletan’s suggestion that we should teach girls to ‘say no firmly’ was the starting point for one of my most-read posts this year).

One of the many things that’s wrong with the ‘just say no’ approach is that a lot of men do not respond well to a woman telling them what to do. (Plenty of women don’t like it much either.) Our ingrained cultural resentment of female authority was another subject I addressed in several of this year’s blog posts. This attitude shows up in what I called the gender ‘respect gap’, a tendency to downgrade women’s status which is manifested in, for instance, the non-use of professional titles for women doctors and academics, or the automatic assumption that married women should be called by their husband’s last name. These small insults are difficult to challenge, partly because individual women may not realise that their own experience exemplifies a more general pattern, but also because complaining about them seems petty or self-aggrandising.

There are also, of course, less subtle ways of using language to put women in their place. These are especially common in the political sphere, where they are also difficult to challenge because their targets are afraid of appearing ‘weak’. Women know they are vulnerable to the charge of being ‘over-sensitive’, too delicate to cope with the proverbial ‘rough and tumble’ of democratic debate—though few male politicians have any first-hand experience of the kind of abuse their female colleagues have to deal with.

Speaking in Parliament in July, the Labour MP Diane Abbott quoted one of the many abusive tweets she had received during the recent General Election campaign, saying she should be hung ‘if they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’ (and that was a rare case where the sender didn’t throw in the N-word). The Prime Minister Theresa May has been described by her own Conservative colleagues as ‘mummy’ and ‘a bloody difficult woman’, while the press has depicted her as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix and, in one recent cartoon, the 1950s ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler. You don’t have to admire May or support her party (ditto for Abbott and hers) to see this kind of verbal and visual representation as an attack on all women who hold, or might aspire to hold, positions of authority and power.

On the other side of the gender respect gap live men who have somehow convinced themselves and others that their every random thought, no matter how commonplace, foolish or offensive, deserves our fullest attention and most enthusiastic applause. This year’s notable examples included the whiny and verbose Google memo-writer James Damore, the Uber director David ‘No Filter’ Bonderman (whose response to the idea of recruiting more women to the Board was to worry that more women would mean ‘more talking’), and the PR guru Richard Edelman, who suggested, during an all-male panel discussion at the industry’s annual ‘Hall of Femme’ [sic] event, that if women wanted to be successful they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’. It’s true that these men’s contributions did not go unchallenged (Damore was fired, and Bonderman resigned), but it’s also true that their brand of masculinity—glib, cocky, untroubled by self-doubt—remains our cultural prototype for what leadership looks like.

Mary Beard has pondered this phenomenon in her recently-published book Women and Power: A Manifesto, where she points out that its roots are very deep: ‘as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation—real, cultural and imaginary—between women and power’.  She doesn’t, however, advocate the liberal solution which I’ve criticised so frequently on this blog, encouraging women to be more like men. As she observes,

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

Changing the structure has always been the project of feminism, at least in its more radical forms. But as we’ve seen very clearly over the last year and a half, patriarchal power structures are resilient: they persist, and they adapt. We will need to do the same. Happy New Year, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.



Not a safe word

Last weekend a writer named Will Saletan stirred up a hornet’s nest when he tweeted some advice for parents:

Teach your daughters to say No firmly, and mean it. Men sense women’s willingness to yield. Make clear you mean business.

Like other feminists, I saw this as a classic case of a man weighing in with very little understanding of the issue at hand, and no appreciation of the reasons why he was bound to provoke a storm of criticism. But the exchanges the tweet prompted, on Twitter and elsewhere, reminded me of another, perhaps less popular opinion I hold: that discussions of sexual consent and refusal very often present the issue of ‘saying no’ as less complicated than it really is.

In 2015, just before I started this blog, I wrote something on this subject which I never found a home for. In fact, I’d more or less forgotten it, until Saletan’s tweet made me remember why I’d felt the need to write it.  So I pulled it out, reworked it slightly, and—for whatever it’s worth—here it is.


In BDSM subcultures, participants in sexual encounters may agree in advance on a ‘safe word’—a word which can be uttered at any time to communicate the message ‘stop this now’. In theory, any word will do: all that matters is that the parties know it and agree to respect its meaning. But there are some words that can’t be used, and one of those words is ‘no’.

The fantasies played out in BDSM involve a dominant partner imposing their will on a submissive one. But the pleasure of imposing your will can only be experienced fully if the other appears to be unwilling. A show of resistance is part of the fantasy, enhancing the erotic charge for both partners. ‘No’, the prototypical verbal token of refusal, is used (along with other prototype expressions like ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’) to enact this simulated resistance. Consequently it cannot be a safe word, the word you utter when your refusal is real.

This principle doesn’t just apply in dungeons. When I was at primary school in the late 1960s, the girls had a playground chant that went: ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me’. The game was to repeat this chant, leaving out the last word each time, like this:

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do!

Oh, Sir Jasper!

Oh, Sir!


I now know that these are the words of a rugby club song which is thought to date from the early 1950s. In its original form it includes a chorus after each line: ‘she lay between the lily-white sheets with nothing on at all’. The scenario evoked in the song has echoes of the popular Victorian melodramas in which an innocent girl is ‘seduced’ (i.e., raped) by an aristocratic villain. In the song, though, she isn’t innocent. Her resistance is simulated, there to be overcome.

At the age of 9 or 10 ‘Oh, Sir Jasper’ was just a game: we didn’t know where the song came from or understand what it was really about. (Today a 10 year-old might have more idea, but we were still pretty ignorant.) With hindsight, though, chanting these words was part of our informal education in the patriarchal rules of heterosexual conduct. We were absorbing the idea that a good girl refuses a man’s sexual overtures (and certainly does not make overtures to him). But we were also learning that her refusal is not sincere: really, she wants what he wants, she just can’t admit it straight away. The man’s job is to wear her resistance down, to persist until ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!’ turns into ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do!’

A decade after leaving primary school I would find myself in another group of women chanting a different set of words: ‘However we dress/ Wherever we go/ Yes means yes/ No means no’. ‘Yes means yes, no means no’—these are statements of the obvious, self-evident truths, tautologies. But when you put them together with the cultural script I’d first encountered as a young girl, they do not look quite so obvious, nor quite so simple.

The script says that whatever they want, women should offer some token resistance. If they say ‘yes’ too easily they risk being branded as sluts. (In an age when Teen Vogue promotes the joys of anal sex you might be thinking this rule no longer applies, but there is plenty of evidence that the charge of being a ‘slut’ (or ‘slag’ or ‘skank’) has not lost its power: it is a basic and ubiquitous component of the sexual bullying endured by thousands of teenage girls). The script also presupposes that it will be the man who asks the question, while the woman’s role is just to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If she does the asking she is not just a slut, but potentially a ball-breaking nymphomaniac. For as long as these conventions persist, the unpalatable truth is that some women, sometimes, will offer resistance which is not meant as an absolute refusal. And some men will get pleasure from overcoming that resistance.

I want it to be crystal clear what I’m not saying here. I am not saying that women are to blame for being raped because they don’t always say ‘no’ and mean it as an unequivocal refusal. Nor am I suggesting that men can be excused for ‘misunderstanding women’s signals’ and believing women consent when they do not. Those defences are both used in rape cases, and I reject them absolutely (I’ll say more about why later on). What I’m saying is that the context in which heterosexual encounters take place is (still) one in which men are defined as sexual subjects, while women are defined as sexual objects. That understanding of their respective roles affects what each participant is allowed to say, and how their words will be understood. In this sexual and linguistic economy there can be no guarantee that a woman’s ‘no’ is always and by definition an unequivocal refusal, nor that her ‘yes’ is always and by definition an active, uncoerced expression of desire.

Of course it is entirely possible for a woman to intend to refuse sex or to consent to sex, and to express that in terms that she herself considers unequivocal. But the thing about language is, you’re never a free agent—at least, not when you’re talking to someone other than yourself. Humans are not mind-readers: we do not have direct access to other people’s intentions, but only to the words they utter. And to understand what other people mean we have to do more than just decode their words. We also have to make inferences about how the words were intended. What is meant may be quite different from the literal meaning of what is said (as in irony or sarcasm); the key to what is meant may lie in what is conspicuously not said (as in hinting or sulking).

Figuring out the meaning behind the words is the hearer’s job, and to do it s/he uses both contextual information and common-sense assumptions about the world. That last part is where the problem arises. Will Saletan’s claim that ‘Men sense women’s willingness to yield’ implies that men just respond to cues they detect in women’s behaviour, but in reality, the men he’s talking about assume women’s willingness to yield. They’re working from the script in which ‘women say “no” when they don’t mean it’ is a common-sense assumption, a truism. This is not a problem with the way individual women express themselves. It is a problem with the world in which they do it.

Men who have been accused of rape will often point out that they can’t read women’s minds. ‘She didn’t say “no”, so what was I supposed to think?’ And in many cases it will be true that she didn’t utter the actual word ‘no’. But it doesn’t follow that she wasn’t refusing. English-speakers very rarely communicate refusals by saying ‘no’, firmly or otherwise.

Refusing is one possible move in response to a proposal or an invitation; the other is accepting. These two options form what conversation analysts call a ‘preference system’. One response, acceptance, is ‘preferred’, and you can express it very simply and briefly. If a colleague asks me to go for a drink after work and I want to accept the invitation, I can say something like ‘great, see you in the pub’. It isn’t a problem that this response is brief and bald, because I can assume it’s what my interlocutor wants to hear (a person who issues an invitation is usually hoping it will be accepted). But if I don’t want to go to the pub I will need to take a bit more care, because (as it says on the old notice about not asking for credit), ‘a refusal may offend’.

Detailed analysis of real-life refusals shows there’s a formula we use to mitigate the offence. It goes: hesitate + hedge + express regret + give a culturally acceptable reason. As in ‘um, well, I’d love to, but I promised I’d be home early tonight’. Or ‘[pause] I’m sorry, but I’ve got a report to finish’.

Imagine responding to someone who suggests going for a drink after work with a simple unvarnished ‘no’. Or ‘no, I can’t’, or ‘no, I don’t want to’. The person you said this to would think you’d been raised by wolves. It’s curt, it’s rude, and it will be heard as arrogant or aggressive. Why would we imagine that saying ‘no’, firmly, is a reasonable thing to tell a woman to do in a situation where she has reason to fear the consequences of giving offence? Why would we blame her for trying to refuse diplomatically, when we’d do the same ourselves in far less risky situations?  And why would we believe that ‘men don’t understand anything less direct than “no”’? The formula for (non-sexual) refusals is used and understood by speakers of both sexes. It’s absolutely normal. Saying ‘no’ is not.

Since it’s not considered ethical to record people’s sexual encounters, linguistic researchers have no direct evidence about sexual refusals in real-life situations. But one study, carried out by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, gathered some indirect evidence by asking women in focus groups to talk about their experiences of refusing sex. The strategies these women said they used followed the formula for other kinds of refusals: they involved hedging, apologizing and giving acceptable reasons. In this context, an ‘acceptable’ reason was one that did not imply any lack of desire for the man who was asking. It was better to emphasize circumstantial obstacles—headaches, periods, early starts—or your own emotional problems (‘well, I’m flattered, but I’m just not ready for another relationship’). Most women agreed that ‘just say no’ was bad advice, especially if the man was putting pressure on you, because of the risk that it would make him angry, and prompt a physically aggressive response.

So, the issue isn’t whether ‘no means no’, and whether men understand that. And it’s certainly not whether women say it ‘firmly’ enough to show they ‘mean business’. The issue is whether men are capable of interpreting—i.e. inferring the intentions behind—the verbal strategies which are normally used to indicate a lack of enthusiasm for something another person proposes. And the answer to that question must be yes, since in all other contexts men use those strategies themselves.

Since Kitzinger and Frith’s study, other research has provided evidence that men are able to interpret refusals which don’t contain ‘no’. This points to another unpalatable truth: in most cases where men have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them, the men must know that’s what they are doing. Some may persuade themselves otherwise (using the time-honoured script in which resistance is token, there to be overcome). Others just don’t care. None of them should be able to get away with it.

In the last couple of years a new consensus has emerged about the importance of educating young people about consent. Many universities are doing this, and in future it will be a required element of the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum in schools. Like most feminists, I’m in favour of this, if only because so many people still have no understanding of their basic rights and responsibilities under the law. But on its own, I think it will only make things slightly better (which I acknowledge isn’t nothing, given how bad they are at the moment). It may help to make refusals more intelligible as refusals—that is, challenge the part of the script which assumes ‘women’s willingness to yield’—but it won’t solve the problem of women saying yes, under social and emotional pressure, to sex they don’t really want, or being prevented from pursuing their own desires by the fear of being branded sluts.

Ultimately what we need to do is rewrite the whole script, not just the ‘saying no’ part. In an ideal world, sex wouldn’t just be consented to (like medical treatment, or the terms and conditions offered by internet providers). It would be an actively and mutually desired exchange between free and equal human beings. We are still a long way from that world; but while of course feminists must go on fighting for what women need in the present, we must also go on trying to imagine a more radically different, and better, future.



A brief history of ‘gender’

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.



[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)

On banter, bonding and Donald Trump

In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the Washington Post described the recording as containing ‘an extremely lewd conversation’, while the Guardian has referred to it as a ‘sex-boast tape’–as if the issue were the unseemliness of bragging or the vulgarity of using words like ‘tits’). But what I do have something to say about is banter itself: what it does and why it matters.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about the tape does not, to my mind, get to the heart of what’s going on in it. So, that’s where I want to begin. Here’s a (quick and very basic) transcription of the start of the recorded conversation: Trump, the Hollywood Access host Billy Bush and a third, unidentified man are talking on a bus which is taking them to the set of a soap opera where Trump is making a guest appearance.

THIRD MAN: she used to be great. she’s still very beautiful

TRUMP: you know I moved on her actually you know she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her and I failed I’ll admit it


TRUMP: I did try to fuck her she was married

THIRD MAN: [laughing] that’s huge news there

TRUMP: and I moved on her very heavily in fact I took her out furniture shopping she wanted to get some furniture and I said I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture. I took her out furniture– I moved on her like a bitch [laughter from other men] but I couldn’t get there and she was married. then all of a sudden I see her and she’s now got the big phony tits and everything she’s totally changed her look

In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.

What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). It’s also male bonding talk: by sharing intimate information about himself–and especially by admitting to a failed attempt at seduction–Trump positions the other men as trusted confidants.

It’s not clear whether the discussion of the woman’s appearance has reached its natural end, but at this point, as the bus nears its destination, Billy Bush intervenes to point out the soap actress Trump is scheduled to meet, and she becomes the next topic.

BUSH: sheesh your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple

THIRD MAN & BUSH: woah! yes! woah!

BUSH: yes the Donald has scored. Woah my man!

TRUMP: look at you. You are a pussy.

[indecipherable simultaneous talk as they get ready to exit the bus]

TRUMP: I better use some tic-tacs in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful–I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet just kiss I don’t even wait [laughter from other men] and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything

BUSH: whatever you want

TRUMP: grab them by the pussy [laughter]  do anything.

Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

You might think that in Trump’s case a lot of men have chosen to do the decent thing. Since the tape became public, male politicians have been lining up to condemn it. A formula quickly emerged: after Jeb Bush tweeted that, as a grandfather to girls, he could not condone such degrading talk about women, there followed a steady stream of similar comments from other men proclaiming their respect for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

But to me this rings hollow. Some of it is obvious political score-settling, and far too much of it is tainted by what some theorists call ‘benevolent sexism’ (no, Paul Ryan, women should not be ‘revered’, they should be respected as equal and autonomous human beings; and no, they aren’t just deserving of respect because they’re ‘your’ women). But in addition, I’d bet good money that all the men uttering these pious sentiments have at some point participated in similar conversations themselves. When Trump protested that Bill Clinton had said worse things to him on the golf course, I found that entirely plausible (though also irrelevant: Trump can’t seem to grasp that Bill’s behaviour reflects on Bill rather than Hillary). Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.

Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.

Male peer networks based on fraternal solidarity are a common and effective mechanism for informally excluding women, or consigning them to second-class ‘interloper’ status, in professions and institutions which no longer bar them formally. Whether it’s city bankers socialising with clients in strip clubs, or construction workers adorning the site office with pictures of topless models, men use expressions of heterosexual masculinity–verbal as well as non-verbal, the two generally go together–to claim common ground with one another, while differentiating themselves from women. Sometimes they engage in sexual talk to embarrass and humiliate women who are present; sometimes they spread damaging rumours behind women’s backs. These tactics prevent women from participating on equal terms.

I said earlier that when Trump and his companions on the bus talked about women, the women were not the real point: they were like the fish in a fishing story or the faceless enemy in a war story. But that wasn’t meant to be a consoling thought (‘don’t worry, women, it’s nothing personal, they’re just bonding with each other by talking trash about you’). When you talk about people it should be personal–it should involve the recognition of the other as a human being with human feelings like your own. Heterosexual banter is one of the practices that teach men to withhold that recognition from women, treating them as objects rather than persons.

When you objectify and dehumanise a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt. And when you are part of a tight-knit peer group, it becomes more difficult to resist the collective will. According to the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, rape culture arises where both these conditions are fulfilled–where men have strong fraternal loyalties to each other, and at the same time dehumanise women. In her classic study of fraternity gang-rape, Sanday argues that what motivates fraternity brothers or college athletes to commit rape in groups is the desire of the men involved both to prove their manhood and to feel close to one another. These are typically men whose conception of masculinity will not permit them to express their feelings for other men in any way that might raise the spectre of homosexuality, which they equate with effeminacy and unmanliness. Instead they bond through violence against someone who represents the despised feminine Other.

Heterosexual banter is a regular feature of life in many fraternities, and Sanday identifies it (along with homophobia, heavy use of pornography and alcohol) as a factor producing ‘rape-prone’ campus cultures. One man who was interviewed for her study recalled the way it worked in his fraternity, and how it made him feel:

By including me in this perpetual, hysterical banter and sharing laughter with me, they [the fraternity brothers] showed their affection for me. I felt happy, confident, and loved. This really helped my feelings of loneliness and my fear of being sexually unappealing. We managed to give ourselves a satisfying substitute for sexual relations. We acted out all of the sexual tensions between us as brothers on a verbal level. Women, women everywhere, feminists, homosexuality, etc., all provided the material for the jokes.

Of course there’s a difference between ‘acting out on a verbal level’ and committing gang rape. It’s not inevitable that one will lead to the other. But Sanday suggests that one can help to make the other more acceptable, or less unthinkable. What the man quoted above says about the social and psychological rewards of fraternal bonding also helps to explain why men may be prevailed on to join in with a group assault, even if they wouldn’t have initiated it alone; and why they don’t intervene to stop it.

Whenever I talk or write about male sexual banter, I always hear from some men who tell me they’re deeply uncomfortable with it. I believe them. But my response is, ‘it’s not me you need to tell’. They risk nothing by expressing their discomfort to me. What would be risky, and potentially costly, would be for them to put their principles above their fraternal loyalties, stop engaging in banter and challenge their peers to do the same.

Similarly, it’s pretty easy–assuming your politics lean left of fascism–to criticise the behaviour of Donald Trump. But as necessary as that may be in current circumstances, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to acknowledge that the kind of banter Trump has been condemned for is more than just an individual vice: it is a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.

Call Me Woman

When I left school in 1976, my first paid job was operating a steam press in a hospital laundry. My payslip described me as a ‘laundrywoman’—an archaic-sounding title that made me feel like a character in a Dickens novel. It was a hangover from a time when English-speakers distinguished between working class ‘women’ and middle or upper-class ‘ladies’. Originally ‘lady’ was the female analogue of ‘lord’, and it can still be a title for the wife or daughter of an aristocrat. But it has undergone a process known as ‘semantic derogation’, where the female term in a male-female pair gets downgraded in status. ‘Lady’ was initially downgraded to apply to bourgeois women as well as aristocrats. Later, it became a polite way to refer to a woman of any social class.

This was another reason why it felt odd to be called a ‘laundrywoman’. My early instruction in the mysteries of etiquette had given me the impression that the word ‘woman’ was disrespectful, if not actually insulting. When I was a child, my mother pointedly referred to most adult women we did not know as ‘ladies’. On buses, it was ‘let the lady sit down’. In sweetshops, ‘tell the lady what you want’. ‘Woman’ was the word she used to refer to someone whose behaviour she disapproved of. ‘Silly woman!’ ‘Someone should have a word with that woman’.

You could say that my mother was making symbolic use of the old class-related meaning of the woman/lady distinction, using the high-class term ‘lady’ to give status to those she wanted to show respect to and the low-class term ‘woman’ to withhold status from those she wanted to disparage. You see the same pattern in formulaic expressions containing ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. The wife of the US president is referred to (respectfully) as the ‘First Lady’ rather than the ‘First Woman’; the female lover of a married man is referred to (disrespectfully) as ‘the other woman’ rather than ‘the other lady’.

But the difference between a woman and a lady isn’t only about social status and respectability. To see what else it might be about, let’s try a little fill-in-the-blanks quiz. For each of the example sentences below, you have to decide whether it’s better to fill the blank with ‘woman/women’ or ‘lady/ladies’.

1. She was a perfect ____ about it.
2. The church flowers were arranged by the _____ of the congregation.
3. Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable _____.
4. Some ____ reported that they experienced multiple orgasms.
5. In Victorian times, it was common for _____ to die in childbirth.
6. A ____ was raped in the city centre last night

These examples give no information about the social status of the people referred to, but I’d still expect English-speakers to have an intuitive preference for either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. Example (1) is straightforward: ‘a perfect lady’ is another of those idioms where you can’t just substitute ‘woman’. (You can say ‘a perfect woman’, but it means something different.) In example (2), either ‘ladies’ or ‘women’ would be possible, but since the sentence is about a stereotypically feminine activity, flower arranging, you may have had a preference for ‘ladies’. In (3), the blank could potentially be filled by either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’, but in this case I’m betting you picked ‘woman’. And in (4), (5) and (6) I suspect you chose ‘woman’ without hesitation.

The difference between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ in these examples is the difference between femininity and embodied femaleness. That’s why virtually no one would choose ‘lady’ over ‘woman’ in the example sentences dealing with sex, childbirth and rape—things that happen to, or are done to, female bodies. ‘Lady’ is a euphemism, a veil drawn over the grossness of female physicality, sexuality and reproduction. A lady does not have bodily functions, whether sex-specific, like menstruation (as the song says, ‘only women bleed’) or shared with the male of the species (there used to be a saying that ‘horses sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow’). The word ‘lady’ appears in coy expressions like ‘lady garden’, which are designed to sanitize references to the female body, but when the reference is to something like rape, which cannot easily be sanitized, its effect is incongruous and jarring.

‘Lady’ is also an incongruous word to use in contexts where the emphasis is on female strength and physicality: that’s why ‘woman’ is more likely in example (3). It isn’t feminine to be strong, or ladylike to get physical. There is one significant exception to this rule: female athletes are often officially referred to as ‘ladies’. We have ladies’ football teams and ladies’ golf and tennis championships; in the US, high school teams for sports played by both sexes, like basketball, were traditionally called ‘the Xs’ and ‘the Lady Xs’. (I know of one school in Indiana where they were called ‘The Devils’ and ‘The Lady Devils’.) But this isn’t really an exception, or if it is, it’s the kind that proves the rule. Calling female athletes ‘ladies’ is an attempt to counter the perception of athletic pursuits, and the women who engage in them, as ‘unfeminine’.

There is a connection between the sex and class-related meanings of the lady/woman distinction. The femininity evoked by ‘lady’ is prototypically middle-class (and white). Think of the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, where young working-class women are sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ladies. Though there’s no question the ladettes are female, their teachers constantly describe them as lacking in femininity.

Similarly, there was nothing feminine about the job I did in the laundry, even though it was a job done exclusively by women. It was hard physical labour (the presses we operated were heavy, and so were the damp sheets we used them on), performed in conditions that made us sweat like horses. ‘Laundry ladies’ would have been a ludicrous way of describing us. (It’s true, of course, that women who clean other people’s houses are often referred to as ‘cleaning ladies’, but that’s another case of ‘lady’ functioning as a euphemism. Domestic employers, who have to negotiate an individual relationship with their cleaner, would rather not acknowledge the class inequality.)

Not long after I stopped being a laundrywoman, I started being a feminist—a supporter of what was then called the ‘Women’s Movement’ or the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. We didn’t call ourselves ‘ladies’. The femininity of  the ‘lady’ was one of the things we wanted to liberate women from; another was the idea that female bodies are gross and unmentionable.

Second-wave feminists made a concerted effort to reclaim the word ‘woman’. But a new generation of activists has started to treat it the way my mother did, as a word to be avoided because of its potential to offend. In my mother’s day the problem with ‘woman’ was its class connotations; today the problem is that references to ‘women’ may be felt to exclude trans and nonbinary people. If we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable or disrespected, we’re told we should refer to the class of humans formerly known as ‘women’ using expressions like ‘uterused people’ or ‘people with ovaries’.

These phrases have been criticised for various reasons, but for me the fundamental problem is that they can’t be used in any context where you want to affirm women’s humanity, dignity and worth. Can you imagine saying ‘Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable person with ovaries’? Or ‘In Victorian times it was common for uterused people to die in childbirth’? I can’t. These aren’t ways of talking about female human beings, they’re ways of talking about gynaecological specimens.

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.