Category Archives: Current affairs

News and sometimes humorous views

Leadsom, May and the mother of all rows

If you’d told me a month ago that two women would shortly be battling to be Prime Minister and there would not be one thing that I liked about the situation, I would have thought you’d had too much Beaujolais. Followed by a hallucinogenic chaser. I never thought I’d be half hoping that Theresa May would become PM even if it is solely on the grounds that she’s better than the alternative. And yet here I am, and there are May and Leadsom, engaged in a scramble to the top. Part of me doesn’t want to think any more at all, about any of it. And yet I’m still contemplating why this feels so bad.

And then I hear the news that Leadsom’s prime qualification for PM, her big advantage over May as far as she’s concerned, is that she’s a mother. To quote Leadsom “genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country. A tangible stake”. I’m 44 and don’t have children. The chances of me becoming a mother are roughly the same as the chances of me winning the lottery, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. In essence what Leadsom is saying is that this makes me less able to empathise, that it makes me less able to think about the future, because I won’t have a stake in it. Thanks, Andrea. Thanks for that.

Now there is the fact that this is hideously insensitive. There’s also the fact that being hideously insensitive makes Leadsom more likely to win a campaign for Tory leadership, not less. But what really alarms me about this is that it seems Leadsom can only invest in the future if that future involves her direct descendants. When it boils down to it, this is a selfish attitude. Personally, I fear for what is happening in Britain because of the effects it is having on society as a whole. And I do see that society as a whole. I worry that anyone who is slightly different, whether that be a difference of race; class; sexuality; age; health or gender will suffer as our political and economic systems implode. I worry that people will suffer prejudice against them and that they will experience genuine hardship through no fault of their own but by sheer luck of the draw. I fear for these people. The fact that they aren’t my direct descendants is neither here nor there. They are fellow human beings and I’d rather they didn’t suffer.

Contrast this with Leadsom, who seems to think that you will worry more about your future if you have children, as if the only way one can empathise is by projecting forwards into your own personal lineage. And in this it seems to me she is highlighting the worst of the Tory party – they will protect their own, they will care about their own, they will see nepotism as normal. They will not be able to understand how you can really genuinely care about the future of society as a whole rather than just your own part of it. It harks back to fiefdom.

Mulling this over, it’s not that I want a female PM per se. It’s that I thought that for us to be in this situation, where not one but two women had got to the top in politics, we would have a more egalitarian society. I would have thought that managing to juggle motherhood with this would be a positive. That having two women reach the top would show that women do not have to chose between career and family. But what Leadsom and May demonstrate is that actually, we have the same political class. The women that succeed are drawn from the same fairly narrow sector of society as many of their male counterparts. True, they are not the products of Eton, but their privilege nonetheless stacks up. And Leadsom’s comments about motherhood confirm this for me. We aren’t entering an age in which we are judged by merit rather than class, age, race or gender. We’re going back to a time when all that really mattered is who your parents were and how much privilege they managed to gain for their own very small part of the social spectrum.



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Marius, slaughter, or just normal herd control?

A young, healthy male animal has been humanely killed by a zoo. This has caused something of an outcry, with other animal parks offering him a home to try to save him and some people (OK, they were on the internet) saying it has ruined Denmark’s reputation as a humane society. But has it?

Putting down healthy, male animals is by and large what our food industry relies on. Of course many of those objecting will be animal rights activists and vegans and I can understand their fears. But I suspect many will have no particular qualms about drinking milk, or indeed munching a burger. So presumably then the fuss isn’t about killing an animal, but about the species.

So how rare was Marius? He would appear to have been a reticulated giraffe, but apparently all the sub species are endangered and have unstable populations so which sub species he was is presumably a moot point. So yes, one could argue that the zoo should not be killing a healthy animal from an endangered species. In which case we could cut out all the stuff about his doe-eyed cuteness. It shouldn’t matter if he’s cute or not, since a human’s idea of cuteness shouldn’t really affect decisions about species preservation (though obviously it does, yes Panda, I’m looking at you).

So given that Marius was rare, would breeding from him have been a good thing? Copenhagen Zoo is part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Under their rules, Marius could not become a breeding male, since his genes are already well presented in the population. This does make me wonder why he was bred in the first place, but then I’m no expert on giraffe genetics.

How about keeping him and not breeding from him? Well that means keeping a non-breeding animal in a space that could be taken up by a breeding animal. It might please the sentimentalists, but it wouldn’t help the giraffe population. Apparently castration would not have been without its complications and I cannot imagine that a frustrated bull giraffe is an animal many zoos would want to have around.

I don’t think for a moment that it was a decision that was taken lightly by the zoo. When you’re dealing with animals of that size, with limited space and with the best interests of an entire population at heart, sometimes you have to make a tough decision that won’t make you popular. I have no problem with people objecting to the decision to kill Marius. But I do think they need to think through their objections. Whether he was cute or not is irrelevant. The real issue is whether or not breeding from him would have helped the giraffe population. Millions of animals are killed every day in far worse circumstances. I’m more worried about them, and the suffering of animals who are kept alive in poor circumstances, than I am about an animal who was killed as quickly and as cleanly as was possible.


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Equal Marriage: the End is Nigh

Today, 100 years after Emily Wilding Davison fatally stepped in front of the King’s horse, the Lords are set to vote on equal marriage. Now I’ve heard many arguments against allowing homosexual couples to marry, none of which hold any water. Apparently marriage is for the procreation of children. Apart from those straight couples who are old or infertile, when it isn’t for procreation but could have been when they were younger or if they were fertile. Apparently it is the bedrock of society. So presumably as a spinster I am the shifting sands of society and will cause it to slide off a cliff. Personally I think Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce have done marriage and society more harm than I ever will but allegedly marriage is great and society rests on it.

As far as I can work out from the Lords’ debate on marriage it will cause chickens to marry horses, the Queen to marry her sister, all women to become infertile, the moon to crash into the earth, Dr Who to have a sex change and a general atmosphere of riot, carnival and destruction as if the 2011 riots had spawned a bastard love child with the Mardi Gras. I am confused by all this. Personally I now refuse to go to church weddings because of the entrenched patriarchy they represent. I can see nothing but good coming from opening up this institution because as it stands, I find marriage hard to stomach.

Oh I know many people are happily married. I know it can work, despite the high divorce rate and despite the sexism built into many marriage ceremonies. However, I distrust the current model. About 15 years ago an old school friend, let’s call her Ruth, got married in church. I’d known Ruth since she was 3 years old. At infants school, aged 5, she had complained to the teachers that it was wrong that the boys did woodwork whilst the girls had to do needlework. Ruth was outspoken. She knew her own mind.

So on the day of her wedding I sat in church whilst the pastor who conducted the service made sexist jokes about marriage and how Ruth’s husband (‘Peter’) would now have to unblock the shower of long hair. (I am puzzled as to why he assumed all women have long hair, they don’t stop it from going down the plughole and if they do let it block the shower, they cannot unblock it themselves). Ruth’s father walked her down the aisle. He handed her over to Peter like a piece of property, which is what the woman initially was in Christian weddings. She promised to love, honour and obey. The man was allowed to kiss his bride, he defined as a person in his own right, she only in relation to him.

At the reception Ruth’s father made a speech. Ruth’s husband made a speech. The best man, the groom, her father-in-law, all spoke up. No woman said anything. I felt sick and aggrieved. Where was my friend? I wanted to listen to her.

Ruth and I moved away from our home town and went in different directions. I tried to stay in touch but her email address was her husband’s. I had to email Peter to communicate electronically. After a non-reply to an email I phoned her for a chat. She hadn’t seen the email, she said, but Peter had seen it and had told her what was in it. I was stumped. I had put ‘For Ruth’ in the subject line. There were things in the email about me that I did not particularly want Peter to know. I had assumed that an email meant for her would go unread by him. I made sure that in future any emails I sent were bland. He was silencing my voice too.

So I carried on emailing and phoning. I invited Ruth to my 30th birthday. She wouldn’t come. She said it was too far. Other people were travelling further but she persisted, it was too far. At that time she had no children and she was in a well-paid job so I could not work out why my longest-standing friend would not travel to my 30th birthday. I emailed but each time I got no email in reply. When I phoned her up she would say that the email system had crashed wiping all the emails out so she had not received mine. Their email seemed to crash a lot.

Then I had an interview in a town near her. I had not seen her for years and would be within half an hour’s easy travel. I phoned her, excited and wanting to meet up. She didn’t go out in the evenings, she said, not anymore. I was frustrated. It was hardly as if I wanted a late night as I would have an interview the following day. Surely she could manage a coffee after work? No, no she didn’t go out on week nights. It was Peter’s voice I was hearing, not hers.

And that was the last time we spoke. I was too angry and annoyed with her to persist. Now, I wonder if I should have done. I know more now about abusive relationships than I did then. I know that abuse is not always physically violent. I know that abusers isolate their victims which is what I think Peter has done. He has silenced my beautiful, strong friend.

So frankly, if two men want to marry each other or two women want to marry each other I say let them. The world will not fall apart. Instead, marriage might become a little more equal and a little more loving. It will no longer be such an entrenched part of patriarchy when it is no longer always about a man marrying a woman. Approaching the 100th anniversary of Davison’s death I find myself thinking more and more about the ways in which women are silenced. I am thinking about my friend and hoping that somehow, some day, she can find her voice again. And if she wants my help, I will always be here for her.

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Welfare reforms: Could I live on £53 per week?

Since Iain Duncan Smith claimed on Radio 4’s Today programme that he could do so, a petition has been launched asking him to put his money where his mouth is, so to speak. Now I penny pinch. As a freelancer, sometimes when I’m waiting for an invoice to be paid I have £3 to live on until it is paid, and I just have to hope that nothing happens, that I don’t have to go anywhere and that there is enough pasta in the cupboard until the invoice clears.

So what do I actually spend money on? Can I cut back to £53 pw? Now I have to confess that my major expense is my horse, which automatically means I could stop bleating about being broke. I mean I could sell him. Personally I view selling the horse in the same way most people view selling their children. However, for the purposes of this calculation let us assume that I don’t have a horse. I will also assume, naively I suspect, that rent is taken care of. So what are my other expenses?

I’m going to calculate this for a year. It evens out expenses as some bills are monthly, others quarterly and some are spread over 10 months of the year. And IDS has been asked to manage on £53 pw for a year. This is as it should be. Anyone can live on £53 a week for one week. You just put off the passport renewal, the hair cut, the dry cleaning and buying that train ticket for the trip to London next month. £2756 for a year presents different problems, especially when paid in fortnightly instalments. This means cash flow problems. It means not buying in bulk in advance, which is cheaper, because you don’t have the cash to buy in bulk. Well not unless you live on less than £53 per week and save as you go, which you might just manage if only you could buy things cheaply and in bulk. Oh.

I will take out the £21pcm I spend on contact lenses and eye care. Let us assume that for a year I will wear glasses only and that they won’t break and my prescription won’t change. Neither will I pay for any eye care. This actually presents a serious problem as I cannot leave the house without glasses or contacts but, well £2756 – £522 = £2504 so it already reduces me to £48.15 per week so I’ll nix the eye  care. Neither will I go to the dentist. Let’s just hope I don’t need to. After all, you can buy DIY dental kits in supermarkets these days. And there’s always a pair of pliers.

I will include internet access. If the government want me to be able to earn my own keep in future I will need the internet to job hunt. I could go to the local library and get this for free but they will only give me 30 minutes per day which frankly isn’t enough to find a job in the current market. It certainly isn’t enough to build up a freelance portfolio. To get the internet access I need a landline telephone even if I don’t actually phone anybody on it. This presents another problem. Since I have the internet, those nice people at TV licensing will make my life hell if I do not buy a TV licence on the grounds that I might have a device for watching the telly and I might be downloading programmes, evil lawbreaker than I am. I will also include a mobile phone. I realise that I cannot eat the phone but heck, even poor people need to communicate.

The good news is that I live in a studio flat. I am thinking of claiming a rebate on the bedroom tax since I don’t actually have a bedroom. Neither do I run a car so none of those lovely hard working tax payers will have to subsidise an overlarge house or my petrol, nasty scrounger that I am, at least for the purposes of this thought experiment. Also, please note, the council tax bill is 20% of the bill for my property. Since the government’s changes, Exeter City Council will give a maximum 80% discount. Otherwise if you’re on JSA, ESA, universal credit or just plain dead, you have to find 20% from somewhere. Just mug a city banker, I promise karma won’t mind.

So here are the sums for per annum expenses:

Electric and gas                                 480.00

Water                                                   312.00

Council tax                                          197.93

Telephone                                          180.00

TV                                                         145.50*

Internet                                               102.00

Mobile phone                                       60.00

Total expenditure                             1477.43

Annual income                                 2756.00

Balance                                                1278.57

* There is a slight problem here. That’s the cheapest option. If you pay weekly it might be more expensive. Things generally are.

This leaves me £24.12 per week for food and anything else once my basic bills are paid. Now I know I can get by on that, although I would be quite miserable. I don’t have a problem with buying second hand clothes and I can go years between haircuts. I know which household goods are cheaper in Wilkinsons and I avoid the Poundshop (Oh look, it’s only a pound, buy it! Errm, no, you don’t need it and it’s cheaper elsewhere). I know which of the Sainsbury’s Basics range are cheaper by weight and which are in a smaller packet so look cheaper but actually cost more per kilo. I know when yellow sticker time is. I doubt IDS knows what it is.

I could manage if I had to and if, for the entire year, nothing went wrong, I never went out and I didn’t need a prescription or a new pair of shoes. In short, I could manage if I obeyed Kinnock’s warning not to be young, ill, old or ordinary. IDS wouldn’t manage and watching him try would achieve little. It certainly wouldn’t increase the empathy of anyone in the Tory party. And that is the real problem. They don’t care whether or not they could manage on £53 pw because they have an unshakeable belief that it won’t happen to them. They believe this because they think that only the feckless need state handouts and they don’t think they are feckless.

What the average Tory politician, and the entire cabinet, do not realise is that the Welfare State is not there for the benefit of feckless scroungers. It is there for the benefit of all of us. It is there so that if you are young, old, ill or just ordinary there is a safety net to prevent you from starving on the streets. It should provide education and health care for all and a basic standard of living for those who cannot work. And if you never actually use the Welfare State at least remember this – your world is still better for its existence because you are not plagued by the crime that results from the hungry, impoverished, ill and uneducated trying to scratch a living. You benefit by living in a society that is kind enough and decent enough to care for its weakest members.

Except that we no longer do this. This vile excuse for a government quite deliberately whips up ill feeling by creating a false dichotomy between hard workers and benefit scroungers, as if no hard worker ever found themselves out of work. By labelling anyone needing state aid as a scrounger they have legitimised their moves to take away that aid. They are dismantling the Welfare State and using a rhetoric of hatred and disgust in order to minimise protest against such a move. So it makes no difference if IDS tries to live for a week or a year or the rest of his tawdry life on £53 a week or £53 an hour. It won’t, for a second, change the views of this shambling cunch of bunts.

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An open letter to Flybe

Dear Sir or Madam

I recently booked tickets from Southampton to Bergerac via your website. I decided to book these using my Flybe Mastercard, as using the card gives me points towards a free flight. The flights, including insurance, came to £202.01. Imagine my surprise, and indignation, when I realised that there would be an £11.00 surcharge for using the Mastercard, especially since it is a Flybe card.

I am aware that as a budget airline, Flybe tries very hard to give its customers the best value for money, ensuring that customers only pay for what they use and that no hidden costs are passed on to them. I am therefore very concerned that Mastercard may be overcharging you and that you are having to pass this cost on to your customers. I think you should contact Mastercard and see if you can renegotiate your contract with them, as clearly in this instance you are unable to give your customers the best value for money. I know that as a company you are fully committed to doing this and that this news must be disturbing for you.

I have therefore undertaken some investigations on your behalf so that you can compare Flybe’s charges with those of other organisations. First, I booked some train tickets with First Great Western. They did not charge me for using my Mastercard. This leads me to believe that either they are being charged much less for administering the card than you are, or that they are being charged a similar amount but simply add it on to the cost of train tickets. I am undecided as to which it might be. If the latter, it would certainly go some way to explaining why we are charged so much by rail companies for such a shoddy service.

Next, I paid for a service provided by my local city council. They charge 1.5% for using a credit card. If you had a similar contract to theirs, the charge on a £202.01 ticket would be 202.01/100 * 1.5 = £3.03. Or to put it another way, in order to warrant a charge of £11 I would have to buy a ticket that cost 11/1.5 * 100= £733.33.

I used the card with the fashion retailer La Redoute. Imagine my joy at finding that they too, do not charge £11 per transaction. I expect they have realised that were they to do so, fewer people would buy clothes from them. Indeed they do not charge anything for using credit cards. Then I purchased a new bike at my rather lovely local bikeshop, reasoning that if flight charges continue to increase I might need a really good bike. The Bike Shed did not charge me a penny for using your Flybe Mastercard. It seems odd then that the people who charge the most for using the card are in fact you, Flybe.

The good news, if I can call it that, is that by using my Flybe card I can gain Rewards4all points. I get 1 reward point for every £250 I spend, plus other points for the flights I take. After 16 points, or a spend of £4000 I get a free flight, not including taxes or taking into account points given for flying. If I were to use my Flybe Card to buy flights and spend £4000 to get a free flight, that would be 20 flights which, if I booked them separately, would mean £220 in card charges. To get a free flight.

In conclusion, I will not be using my Flybe card to book flights with you as the £11 charge is completely and utterly unreasonable. The money I save I might, or might not, spend with Flybe. On balance, I think not. This is the problem with being greedy, grasping and unreasonable. It means you lose customer goodwill. I leave you to work out the impact this might have on your business.

Yours faithfully

Dr H. Blackman


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Burchill, feminism and the ways to define a woman

The Moore-gate train crash

The story so far, for those sensible souls who stay away from Twitter. Suzanne Moore published an article in the New Statesmen about why women should be angry. Amongst the various things that we are supposed to be annoyed about is ‘not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ This eventually led to a storm on Twitter. Now the original remark is clumsy and lazy. It does not distinguish between male to female and female to male transsexuals, although that should be obvious from the context. But it is also a glib, throwaway comment about something which means a great deal to some people. The words ‘Jessica Rabbit’ would have made the same point but would have been less likely to offend. Moore’s remark glossed over the complexities of who defines an ideal female body. Do male to female transsexuals choose that shape, or is it foisted upon them by a society and a medical profession which states ‘if you want to be a woman, this is what you must look like’?

Moore was politely asked on Twitter if the remark was really necessary, in an otherwise good article. Rather than engage in what might have been a fruitful debate, she responded by becoming increasingly aggressive. Eventually she said “I don’t prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women Intersectional enough for you?” Understandably, this comment did not go down well and things deteriorated from thereon in. Neither side comes out of this well. I think people were right to pull Moore up on the remark and to start with this was done in a measured and considered way. However, later Moore received threatening tweets and no-one deserves that kind of abuse. Some of them are recorded here, but beware – the blog itself carries many transphobic posts and my understanding is that some of those tweets do not refer to Moore. Moore sank almost as low, tweeting ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’ This was wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is that being transgender is about so much more than surgery. And, let’s face it, unless you’re a disciple of Freud being a woman is about a great deal more than whether you have a dick or not.

Moore has subsequently issued an apology of sorts, although not before she had an article published in the Guardian that basically compounded the original error. At this point, perhaps her biggest worry was that Julie Burchill leapt to her defence with an article in the Observer, although it was not so much a defence, as an offensive blitz of self publicity. After two days, the Observer took the piece down. Unfortunately this forced them to delete the 2000+ comments below the line with it, although the majority were much better journalism than Burchill’s drivel.

In a, to be frank rather odd plot twist, this move from the Observer allowed Moore and Burchill to reconstruct this story so that they were the victims and were being silenced by some sort of trans-cabal. This silence took the form of Burchill’s piece being republished in the Telegraph and Moore having another article in the Guardian. However, through all the kerfuffle, the calls for sacking and the shouting about freedom of speech, there were some more reasonable voices that pointed out that whether the Observer should have taken Burchill’s piece down or not, the fact was they should never have published it in the first place.

Burchill’s article

In case you are wondering, Burchill’s article was explicitly in defence of her friend Moore. It must be nice, if you think your friend has been insulted on the internet, to be able to get a major national newspaper to print your thoughts on this. Burchill painted the pair of them as working class feminists striving against the odds to make it in the newspaper industry (signs that you have made it include a need to quaff champagne and eat lobster, apparently). I’ve taken out the argument, which did not take long, and left the insults, which amount to this:

bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.

a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look. [Almost as poorly phrased as it is rude].

the very vociferous transsexual lobby and their grim groupies

their relationship with their phantom limb

trans lobby

To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege


bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs [the bedwetting is a nasty reference to one of the side effects of some surgery.]

To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you […] Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.

Now there are all sorts of things wrong here. Burchill fundamentally does not understand what it is to be transgender. She’s rude, she’s deliberately and unnecessarily offensive and she’s whipping up hatred against a group of people who have enough to contend with without her starting on them. It would be bad in any newspaper but from the Observer, it was appalling. And it was just bad journalism. Why on earth give someone space to stick up for their mate? That’s what blogs and facebook are for, not national newspapers.

More than that, Burchill is forgetting one of the fundamental tenets of feminism. As Simone de Beauvoir stated “One is not born but becomes a woman”. Feminism is about many things but for me it is about the freedom to make choices, the opportunity to be treated equally and freedom from biological determinism. This is not freedom from biology – I can’t suddenly escape my clinical depression, or gravity, or my liver function or my fundamental need to pee after too much caffeine. But my future and my choices should not be determined by the fact that I am a woman not a man. And how am I supposed to escape biological determinism if ‘feminists’ such as Burchill insist that there is such a difference between someone who is born a woman and someone who becomes one?

And this is a fundamental problem for feminism. On the one hand you want to argue, as a feminist, that being a woman should not define you. And on the other you want to argue that all women have a fundamental, shared experience and a common cause which unites them. So which is it? Are all women potentially different and not to be defined solely by their womanhood, or do they all have something in common that unites them all? And is the thing that unites them basic biology? Because if it is, then escaping from biological determinism just became a lot more difficult. Or is it shared cultural experience on the basis of biology, which is still tricky, but not as difficult to negotiate.

To be a woman: it’s all in the genes

It might help to explore the basic biological definitions of what it means to be female. One of the things that came across clearly in the comments on Burchill’s and Moore’s pieces was the level of ignorance amongst commentators about sex difference. Many people were stating that sex difference is ‘written into your DNA’ that it’s ‘all down to genetics’ and, for those who knew a little more, that women were the ones with XX chromosomes. However, the reality is rather more complex. Nature hasn’t evolved with little labels. It is chaotic and unruly. Within all this chaos, humans spot patterns and we have decided that there are two sexes, male and female. The former produces sperm—small motile gametes— and the latter produces eggs— large ‘passive’ gametes. One gets pregnant, gives birth and nurtures its young and the other, by and large, buggers off.

At school we are generally taught that humans have 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs. One pair defines our sex: if we have XY chromosomes we are male, if we have XX chromosomes we are female, and that is that. This is relatively simple and it seems to give us two definite, easily recognisable sexes. The truth is rather more complex and there are more intersexed individuals (‘hermaphrodites’) than the medical profession, and society, care to admit. Not everybody fits neatly into one category or another.

Historically, sex difference has not always been rigidly defined. Prior to about 1870 men and women were defined as such according to bodily (somatic) differences. Those who fell in between and were neither clearly male nor clearly female could be classified as ‘hermaphrodites’. If necessary, for example in cases of inheritance, a priest or doctor might be asked to assign a definite sex to an individual. However, in general, movement between the sexes and a ‘third sex’ was more readily accepted.

From around 1870, men of science and clinicians divided the sexes according to the gonads: men had testicles and women had ovaries. These were not defined solely by their position in the body, they also showed distinct microscopic anatomical differences. It was very, very rare for anyone to have both ovarian and testicular tissue present in their bodies. Thus the number of ‘true hermaphrodites’ could be narrowed down. Oh there were ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites’, that is individuals who did not appear to be clearly either male or female, but examining their gonadal tissue under the microscope, something which became easier as surgery improved, meant they could almost always be placed in one category or another. And no matter how ‘feminine’ a pseudo hermaphrodite appeared, if she had testicular tissue she was male. Increasingly, the definition of sex difference was becoming divorced from an individual’s appearance.

Thus there was a shift from a somatic (bodily) definition of sex difference to a gonadal definition. In the early twentieth century, with the discovery of genetic material in cells, a genetic definition of sex came to the fore. And this had the advantage of further reducing the number of individuals who did not clearly fit into one sex or the other. The idea was put forward very early in the history of genetics, as biologists Edmund Beecher Wilson and Nettie Stevens declared in 1905 that males had XY chromosomes and females had XX chromosomes. Thus in the early twentieth century, as men such as Oscar Wilde challenged the definition of masculinity and women such as Philippa Garrett Fawcett challenged the definition of femininity (she beat the top man in the Cambridge mathematics tripos), scientists devised a way of telling who was ‘really’ male from who was ‘really’ female.

So historically, that is how we came to decide that the difference between male and female lay in the chromosomes. However, not everyone with XY chromosomes is clearly male, and not everyone with XX chromosomes is clearly female (and for now I’ll leave out the other chromosomal variations).

You can find out a bit more about those variations here: Note that the language is rather laden. Also note that individuals are labelled as male and female even though they do not fit into a clear binary pattern.

This is because, whilst we define sex difference genetically, many of the characteristics we associate with each sex come about because of the endocrine (hormone) system. Sex may be defined genetically but it is differentiated by our hormones. In the case of someone who is androgen insensitive this means that the individual has XY chromosomes but looks female externally. Individuals with this condition often appear tall and athletic but nonetheless develop female secondary sexual characteristics at puberty. Diagnosis often occurs only in their late teens because they do not menstruate.

Legally someone who is androgen insensitive will be female because they are defined as such at birth. And this highlights another complication. Who actually defines sex difference? I don’t mean who put the XX/XY definition in the textbooks, I mean who actually looks at a newborn and says ‘it’s a girl’? The answer is generally an obstetrician or midwife. They decide by looking at the external genitalia which means at this stage, it does actually come down to whether or not you have a penis. And whether or not you have a penis is not entirely determined by your genetics, because of the complex interaction with the endocrine system. So your legal sex and your genetic sex might not match.

Now at this stage you can splutter around and say ‘but, but, really they’re male, they’re XY’ or ‘but these cases are very rare’ or ‘but really there are just two sexes’. This is not, I would suggest, particularly helpful if you are one of the millions of people on the planet who is in some way intersexed. The fact is, a sex might be assigned to you that does not match your genetic sex. And you may well feel that you are the assigned sex, not the genetic one. It seems to me that it is better to accept that the binary categorisation is something that we impose, not something that occurs in nature. So exceptions to the binary categorisation are not somehow odd, or abnormal, or failing in some way. Rather, our categorisation is failing because it is not flexible enough.

You might want to play your trump card and say ‘well really there are two sexes, one that gets pregnant and one that gets the other sex pregnant’ thereby glossing over all the people who can do neither. But even if you do that, nature is wonderful and odd. Here is an account that shows that someone with some XY genetic material nonetheless gave birth. So, the ultimate female accolade, the ability to give birth, does not match our genetic sex.

Where then does this leave our ‘Brazilian transsexual’? Should we allow someone whose bodily appearance is (or was) male to comment on female experience and feminism? Well why on earth not? My understanding is that those who are transgender find that whilst their body has been defined as one sex, their mind is convinced they are a different sex. Now feminism raises important questions. What does it mean to be female? Is there a shared female experience? Can we rely on a biological definition and if so, are we biologically determined? We have individuals who appear female but want to be male, and those who appear male but whose minds say they are female. So, is this not a good place to investigate what it really means to be female? How can it not be?

It seems to me that if we automatically disallow male to female transgendered individuals from women’s groups, then we admit that we are solely defined by our biology. And frankly, as feminists, is that what we really want?

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Mass hysteria and the tangled webs we weave

April Fools Day was no fun this year, as my parody meter appears to have broken, and no amount of shaking will fix it. I may have to sue the government for compensation, since I hold them directly responsible for the fact that I have lost the ability to work out where reality ends and parody begins. Though it was easy to spot the April Fool himself – I just pointed at Francis Maude.

Of the many odd, hilarious, alarming, and wince-making things the coalition has been up to, the petrol advice stood out as the worst. I’m going to start by assuming it was all just a cock up. Then I’ll move on to the idea that it might have been a conspiracy. Neither bodes well or makes them seem any less stupid or nasty.

To recap, their general advice, for several days, was that car drivers should not panic, NO DEFINITELY DON’T PANIC, I SAID NO PANICKING but should simply put a bit extra in the tank the next time they happened to pass a petrol station. More specifically, dear old Maude recommended also filling jerry cans with petrol and storing them in the garage, advice which flies in the face of common sense, reality and strictures from the Fire Brigade. He showed a complete lack of knowledge of how most of us live. I don’t have a garage but unlike various of my other traits, this does not mark me out as particularly odd.

As a result, a week on there are still petrol shortages and these look likely to persist over the Easter weekend. One woman is in hospital with 40% burns. And I really cannot help but wonder and sigh over science education in this country. Really, why are people not interested in science? How can you not be interested? If you know about science, you can work out that petrol has a low boiling point. This means that it vaporises readily even at room temperature. In fact the reason it smells so strongly is because of that vaporisation – that smell is your nose detecting petrol vapour in the air. And if you learn about car engines you know that petrol’s flammability is really quite important. If it weren’t highly flammable, we wouldn’t be using it as fuel. So for pity’s sake, take all of this science on board and realise that pouring it from a can to a jug, in your kitchen, with the oven on, is not the world’s best idea. I mean I really am sorry that someone learned all this by getting severely burned. But really, what does it say about British society, our knowledge, and our education if even one person responsible enough to hold a driving licence, could not work out that pouring petrol in the kitchen was a very dangerous idea.

But back to that advice. Essentially it is the Tory party in microcosm. If you, as an individual get to the petrol pump first and top up, the advice works for you as an individual. What happens then is that others, observing you, copy you because once one person has started to panic buy it makes sense for others to panic buy. The result is that we then have a tipping point in which so many people panic buy we create a shortage– the very thing we feared in the first place. So as a society the advice doesn’t work, but it’s fine for the pig at the front of the queue and let’s face it, that’s right-wing politics in a nutshell.

This behaviour has often been observed in the past. It is well known. Psychologists have spent some time investigating how people respond to this kind of dilemma. Because what will work for a few individuals in this situation will not work well for the majority. Thus we have the problem – do we act in self interest, or in the interests of the majority? Apparently any knowledge of this particular psychological dilemma is generally omitted from Eton syllabi.

Coalition response to the growing crisis was initially that clearly their advice was sensible, because tanker drivers were then still working, so it was OK because stocks would be refilled. This showed not only their utter ignorance of human behaviour, but also total ignorance of the way the economy works. And these are the people running the economy. But they had no idea that many systems, perhaps most, work on a just-in-time basis. This is because storage costs money and as any sensible capitalist will tell you, you don’t want to waste money storing excess stuff no-one currently needs, on the off chance that the government will cause a shortage by announcing that there might be a shortage. Again they just could not work out that what one person does can have a ripple effect throughout society. One person buying extra does not create a shortage. Almost everyone buying extra so that demand more than doubles does tend to cause trouble with the supply chain.

Those were the most immediate and obvious problems. But in addition, there are reasons we are told to avoid full fuel tanks when taking cars on ferries or in tunnels. Fuel is a fire hazard and crashing with full tanks makes the hazard worse. And another thing, fuel has weight. So you need more fuel to carry around the extra fuel. So you’ll get through fuel faster, creating even more of a shortage. Lovely.

Now let’s explore the possibility that the government weren’t just being stupid. They have raised a large amount of extra revenue just before the end of the financial year. And they were apparently trying to whip up anti-strike feeling. That one has legs. OK it appears not to have worked, but it has legs.

On the Today programme, Baroness Warsi referred to the ‘strike’ in 2000. Except that the fuel shortage in 2000 was not caused by a strike. It was caused by farmers and lorry drivers blockading fuel depots. I’m sure Warsi was aware of this. She’s not ignorant. She is disingenuous. Or a flat out liar. Add to this the Lib Dem’s Sarah Teather on Question Time stating that a strike had been called and you get the picture. At that stage, no strike had been called. Words matter. This government may be thick. They may be disingenuous. They may be flat-out selfish lying bastards. But they do have a manipulative skill in the way that they use words. I may have lost my ability to detect parody but I have not lost my ability to detect manipulation.

So that’s the coalition government for you. Good at offering advice that is in the interests of individuals but not in the interests of society as a whole. Bad at understanding the economy. Good at trying to be devious, hopeless even in their deviousness. And to add to the danger, they have a nasty way with words.


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