26

I turn 26 in two hours’ time. Here are 26 things I am angry about and intend to overthrow before I turn 28*

1. The Coalition

2. The patriarchy

3. The distinct lack of free chlamydia screening for people my age

4. Theresa May

5. Bankers

6. Hiding anchovies inside perfectly nice olives

7. The Coalition

8. The kyriarchy

9. Tories

10. Lib Dems

11. Labour

12. Fuck it, parliamentary politics on the whole

13. Rapists

14. People who don’t find lame puns funny

15. Andrew Lansley

16. The government

17. The patriarchy

18. Putting milk in tea without explicit prior consent

19. Plane trees

20. The police

21. Rape apologists

22. Prawn crackers

23. Tax avoiders

24. Nadine Dorries

25. The government

26. The patriarchy

There may be some overlap between concepts. This is because everything is connected.

*I have a slight aversion to the number three and its multiples, and therefore will be skipping 27 (3^3) and doing 28 twice.

Wisdom teeth: Evolutionary psychology and gender

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is an area of psychology which views many psychological traits as evolutionary adaptations; for example, having a good memory is an adaptation, and organisms which do, tend to survive better.

I have no quibble with this general thesis; I do not subscribe to the tabula rasa view, and I am sure, despite what Steven Pinker believes, that very few do.

There are, however, some examples of very shaky science in evolutionary psychology, particularly in regards to controversial work surrounding gender and gender roles. I myself am particularly interested in what the discipline says about gender, having studied it previously and being a massive raving feminazi.

Evolutionary psychology considers traditional gender roles, i.e. the dominant, aggressive man and the submissive, nurturing woman, to be adaptations. Much of this essentially comes down to sex and childcare: women need to be gentle and empathic to raise children, while it is necessary for men to be agressive and strong to protect their offspring.  In and of itself, this is vastly contestable: using a comparative approach, as is often used in evolutionary psychology, it is evident that there is a plethora of childrearing strategies in the animal kingdom.

Evolutionary psychology has been used to explain a variety of gender differences and gendered behaviours. For example, this article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” outlines a few: beauty standards are hardwired, men are not naturally inclined to monogamy and will cheat, male sexual harassment of women is perfectly natural, and, my personal favourite, Muslims become suicide bombers because polygynous culture means that they cannot get laid. Really.

These claims have a vague intuitive appeal, and yet, for the most part, they are largely built on hypothesising about how such behaviours can be hardwired, with very little empirical investigation as to how this can be the case. Often these claims come from popular science books which theorise, such as Pinker’s Blank Slate. This “storytelling” that behaviours are adaptations is particularly noticeable in theories such as the suicide bombers idea: polygyny is not particularly common in Islam, and therefore it cannot possibly explain the prevalence of Muslim suicide bombers. Another example of this is the infamous evolutionary psychology paper which claimed that girls’ preference for pink was an adaptation, while cheerily ignoring the idea that a hundred years ago, pink was the colour for boys while blue was the colour for girls.

Such data-free just-so stories are worryingly popular in the media: google “girls prefer pink evolution”, and there are many gushing newspaper articles reporting uncritically the girls’ preference for pink myth.

Not all evolutionary psychology is quite so evidence-free. Sometimes hypotheses are tested, although often with small sample sizes, or findings which go against the general big-strong-dominant-man-is-sexy dogma. In the media, though, empirical studies are treated with the same weight as hypothesising: both are seen to be painting the status quo with science.

With the ease with which one can hypothesise an evolutionary basis for a trait, it is no surprise that so many become armchair evolutionary psychologists, theorising after having once read Blank Slate. For example, this rather silly blog seems to suggest that there is an adaptive, innate reason that little girls want to be princesses when they grow up. In the comments, the blogger rather unparsimoniously tries to defend this view by suggesting that advertisers capitalise upon girls’ innate lust for princess-based paraphernalia. Such lay theorising and justification of behaviour is common: the man who cheats  may say “it’s in my genes”; the woman pregnant by another man may say “his sperm looked stronger”, the plastic surgeon will declare there’s a valid evolutionary reason that you should have a nose job, or you’ll never find a mate. Evolutionary psychology has even been used to justify the existence of rape, adding a pseudoscientific sheen to the myths that men can’t help themselves and women should stop wearing short skirts.

The science behind evolutionary psychology is not as strong as many appear to think, and it is an area to which many professed-sceptics show a distinct lack of critical thinking. I advise caution in interpreting evolutionary studies: many are not actually studies, but stories. The remainder are often poorly-conducted, as it is very hard to empirically test evolution without a fossil record of thoughts.

Suppose, though, that all or some of the claims made by evolutionary psychology are true: perhaps, that men are indeed, genetically, big hairy dominant hunters, while women are nice pink mummies, and these roles are hardwired as adaptations to the environment in which humans evolved.

The human body is rather imperfectly designed. We have a lot of various things that we don’t really need, for example, the appendix. Once, we needed our appendix to digest grass. These days, it sits there, until suddenly it might fancy getting blocked and exploding everywhere. Or, more often, it’ll just sit there, doing nothing at all. The appendix, though, was never really used by humans. It is just a vestige.

Wisdom teeth, though, were highly useful to humans when we first evolved. Humans were still a long way off inventing dental hygiene, and, so, tended to die once all of their teeth had rotted away and they could no longer eat. Wisdom teeth, emerging in the mid-twenties, gave an extra few years of life: four more teeth meant more time being able to eat. With the advent of dental hygiene, we no longer lose all of our teeth to decay, and wisdom teeth have become an annoyance. When a wisdom tooth grows into a mouth full of healthy teeth, there is often not enough room, and the new tooth impacts. I had a wisdom tooth that solved the lack-of-space problem by growing horizonally. Each time I bit down, it would take a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. I had it removed.

Wisdom teeth, then, are a solution to a problem that no longer exists, and when the tooth becomes a problem we have it yanked out.

If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth. They are a solution to a problem that no longer exists: we shop in supermarkets now; we have modern health care; our children are sent off to school; we have DNA testing for identification of fathers; we can have sex for pleasure with a very low risk of reproduction. The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

We can overcome wisdom teeth, and, if any of the shaky claims of evolutionary psychology regarding gender turn out to be true, we can yank that out of our society, too.

The contents of a uterus are in the public interest

I spied the front page of the Metro today, that free rag that appears to be spontaneously generated from bus seats.

The news–front page news, the most important of all of the news that is happening in the world–was that famous woman had a miscarriage. It featured a picture of the woman and her boyfriend leaving the doctor’s office, grim-faced and grief-stricken with the gleefully-captalised caption “HEARTACHE”. The text featured two quotes from “sources”, both saying that the people wished to have their privacy respected.

The hypocrisy was stark. Quotes of a plea for privacy juxtaposed with an invasion of privacy.

Front page news? Why are the contents of a famous uterus so important that they are front page news?

It is hardly surprising. The media is obsessed with pregnancy. Famous women are monitored from the second they announce that their uterus is occupied. Breathy features praise these women for maintaining a rake-thin figure with a bump in the middle, like a sated anaconda with a “healthy glow”. Some women are criticised for the fact that pregnancy takes a strain on their body, causing weight gain and fatigue and bad skin. Body language experts are called in, invited to guess the sex of the foetus from the position of the woman’s stomach. The woman’s diet is recounted in great detail. Speculation about how the foetus will emerge is rife: is the famous woman “too posh to push”? Will her cunt ever be the same after a small person has crawled out of it?

Even when a famous woman is not pregnant, the media cannot help themselves but gossip. She has a new boyfriend, and she is wearing a loose top. She must be pregnant. Her stomach bulges slightly. This is unnatural; she must be pregnant. She hasn’t been out and about for a while. She must be pregnant.

For those women unlucky enough to experience a miscarriage, this news is brazenly splashed across the media. It is in the public interest. We must be updated on every second of a woman’s pregnancy, at the expense of her personal privacy.

Her uterus is public property.

Is it really so surprising that the contents of a woman’s uterus are considered so fascinating?

After all, since the dawn of civilisation, women have tried to abort pregnancies, and the patriarchy has tried to stop them. Throughout the ages, society has tried to control the contents of a woman’s uterus. Forced pregnancies and forced abortions are written into our culture.

To many, the contents of a woman’s uterus are her own business; she may do with them what she wishes. We are pro-choice because we do not believe we have the right to make that choice for another person.

To others, though, the contents of a woman’s uterus are their business. They try to exert control through the law, through religion, through hijacking sex education and through harassment. They have jammed our culture; our media is riddled with detailed accounts of pregnancy, infertility and miscarriage.

They have made the contents of a uterus public interest.

In a bow to this, I shall declare the contents of my uterus: tumbleweeds, cobwebs, and the skeletons of old lovers who went too far.

You need to know this.  The contents of a uterus are important to you.

Default options

Despite being the worst book about behaviour change ever written, Nudge has a point: people tend to pick the default option. If the default option is a plain digestive and you have to work a little harder to get a chocolate digestive, chances are, you’ll stick with the plain digestive. It’s still a digestive, after all. By manipulating the default option, one can manipulate behaviour. If one wanted to stop people eating biscuits at all, the default option would be a dry hunk of Ryvita, with hoop-jumping required for digestives, plain or chocolate. Fewer people would eat biscuits.

We are bombarded with default options. Everywhere we look, we do things without thinking.

Businesses know this, and have been capitalising on this tendency of ours. Open up a phone book. Count the number of companies with names such as “A1 Cabs, ABC Cabs, Aardvark Cabs”; the ones that you will call before you ever bother reading down. Consider how shelves are stacked, with the cheap goods at the bottom so the eye is drawn to the identical, yet dearer, products placed at eye level. Think about the last time you went to a supermarket? Did you buy the special offer chocolate near the till, just because it was there?

Not everything comes so naturally and so easily. Sometimes it needs some marketing to point out a problem people never knew existed in order to sell products: many beauty products are targeting ugliness that did not exist before an advertising executive had a smart idea. Removing most body hair has now become default and automatic for women. Make-up is sold as something which does not look like one is wearing any make-up at all. It is, after all, normal and natural for women to wear make-up, so they should paint their faces to make it appear as though they are wearing none at all.

Most of us swallow this without ever really thinking about it.

We then convince ourselves that we made the right choice, and that we consciously chose the product we did.

What it is, is control. We will unthinkingly purchase products not because they are better, but because they’re there and everyone else is doing it. There is not a readily visible alternative, and our big brains are used to taking shortcuts to get things done.

A lot of what we do is based on this. Take monogamy.

There is absolutely no good reason for monogamous relationships to be the only way to have a romantic relationship or to raise a family. None whatsoever.

Yet monogamy is the default. It is taken as a given that relationships should and must contain two people: no more, no less. It is visible in formal forms: always “partner”, never “partner (s)”. It is visible in invitations: “bring a plus one”. It is visible on Valentine’s Day: a restaurant with orderly tables for two set out.

Unthinkingly, we accept monogomy to be normal and natural. Everyone else is doing it. To reinforce this supposedly natural default, a little intervention is undertaken: the institution of marriage. Here, the state validates what it perceives as appropriate ways to love. In the UK, marriage is only available to a couple consisting of a man and a woman. It is not even open to monogamous same-sex couples, who receive a similar but different state-sanctioned seal of approval on their relationship.

Many people claim to have consciously chosen monogamy. When it is presented as the norm, as the default option, how is that a choice at all?

It is a conscious choice in the same way that the slightly pricier, equally inferior noodles you chose to buy was a conscious choice. Everyone else does it, it’s right there, it is sanctioned by external forces who do not present alternative options.

The default is as normal and natural as any other choice. Think. Beware the nudges.

Voting

I voted in the AV referendum. I voted YES, a tiny little cross, a mote of dust in the spokes of the titanic opposition campaign, ultimately meaning nothing.

How I voted is almost immaterial. I do not care particularly for AV; it represents, perhaps, a minor improvement on the current system. NO will almost certainly win.

The thing is, I really love voting.

My first election was a London Mayoral one. As a contrarian teenager, I voted for George Galloway because everyone seemed to think he was a cunt. How I voted was almost irrelevant. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to vote.

It started with Mary Poppins. The mother of the children is a Suffragette. I remember watching, and my mother explained to me the story of those brave women who campaigned, took direct action and died so that women could vote.

That summer, my mother took me to the polling station, and I watched her vote for Vincent Cable. How she voted was irrelevant.

I loved the smell and the ritual of the polling station. I still do.

I feel a prickle of excitement when my polling card arrives. I read it, and research the candidates I will be voting for. Often, I choose wrong. I participate, nonetheless.

My polling station is a church. As I prepare to enter, a flash of concern that I may start fizzing and be labelled a witch always passes through my head. It has never happened so far.

My polling station is always empty. Today was an exception; as I entered, someone was leaving. The person who handed me my ballot paper told me it was a better turn out than usual.

As I grip the pencil, I read my ballot paper one more time, to make sure I am voting for what I had decided. Today, I read the question several times, just to be sure the government had not decided to change the question so I would be voting yes to the status quo.

The process takes less than two minutes, and yet it feels so big to me. I feel the powerful sense of history, of solidarity with my Suffragette foremothers.

Inhabiting the system that we do, voting is the only expression of opinion we are granted by the state which will certainly not result in arrest or a beating from the police. This is wrong, of course, but I feel the meaning and the history of my action so strongly that for those two minutes in the polling station I do not think of how fucked we are.

I wish my vote meant more in terms of change. The perceived significance of the act is so much larger than its actual significance.

Knowing all of this, I vote anyway. It is irrelevant, but it feels glorious.

The view from cloud cuckooland: Dorries and abstinence

The UK has long lacked any compulsory requirements for sex education, but that changed today. A tiny proportion of MPs voted through a 10 Minute Rule BMotion proposed by the chronically batshit religious nutter Nadine Dorries. The motion proposed the following:

“Sex Education (Required Content): That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes.”

As the motion was voted through, this means that young women will now be taught about abstinence as a component of sex education. There are numerous problems with this proposal.

First of all, abstinence-only education doesn’t work. There’s a plethora of evidence. Quite simply, teaching abstinence and only abstinence is about as good as teaching young people nothing at all.

Dorries does not explicitly call for abstinence-only education. What is worrying, is that abstinence education is now the only compulsory part of sex education.

Dorries’s attitude towards policy for sex seems to be heavily influenced by two things: a fundamentalist Christian sense of morality and either dire stupidity or wilful misrepresentation of evidence. It is not just sex education she wishes to meddle in: she is also rather fond of twisting evidence to try to reduce women’s access to abortion.

Dorries, then, seems keen on controlling the reproductive freedom of women, as her motion only targets young women. There is still no compulsory sex education for young men of the same age. Young women, meanwhile, will be taught how to abstain.

This is deeply disconcerting. Teaching abstinence to women only suggests that women are the gatekeepers of sex: that it is their responsibility to abstain. This view has damaging consequences for everyone. It teaches men that they are creatures driven entirely by their dicks, and they cannot control their natural urges. It teaches women that they must always be the ones to say “no” to these piggish men and their piggish dicks. It reinforces rape culture, fostering the “no means no” notion.

Societally, what Dorries has proposed is disastrous.

More MPs need to propose more bills making comprehensive sex education compulsory, going beyond simple birth control into education about sex and rape and consent. People need to learn that sex is absolutely tremendous fun if you do it safely; that as long as everyone involved is consenting enthusiastically, there is nothing wrong. Knowledge needs to be taught: pregnancy, STIs, contraception, abortion. Skills need to be taught: contraception use, saying no, and saying yes.

With all of that compulsory, Dorries’s motion will be unproblematic. Abstinence is the best way to prevent pregnancy and STIs. However, as a good fucking is really, really fucking good, many will not make this choice, and abstinence education does nothing to address the nature of sexual consent.

Dorries needs to stop controlling women. It is for the good of everyone.

Seeing the system

The verdict was finally returned on the Ian Tomlinson inquest, with unexpected speed. As many have been saying for the last two years, Tomlinson was killed by a baton blow and shove from PC Simon Harwood. Immediately, Twitter exploded. The hashtag #PCSimonHarwoodIsAThug began to trend.

It was not until much later that people began to point out that the problem is much deeper than that.

Harwood’s behaviour was not an example of a rogue thug, behaving in a way that is at odds with policing. The only difference is that Harwood actually killed someone, rather than doling out a maiming or bruises and psychological trauma.

It is easier to follow the view that Harwood is a thug, rather than seeing the problem is systemic. It is always easier to see a problem as a personal choice rather than a broken system. This is called the just-world effect.

I had my ‘feminist click moment‘ relatively recently; it has been less than two years since I took the red pill and began to understand, fully, that I inhabited a system which was fundamentally skewed against me as a woman. Less than one year ago, my understanding of injustice broadened as I became politically active. I saw it everywhere. What had once been a vague noise, largely beneath my perception, had exploded into a scream.

The system is fucked. I could no longer ignore it. Personal choices meant very little. The system is fucked.

At the back of my mind, the cognitive shortcut I had used still splutters, ‘but, but, but…’

Its argument means nothing to me.

It is hard to suddenly see ourselves as figures playing a rigged game, that it is not a problem of bad individuals, but a fundamentally broken system. It feels like suddenly there is a fight that cannot be won.

Consider the Tomlinson verdict: it took almost two years for a jury to rule that he was unlawfully killed. The video evidence of the attack has been present for all of that time. It was only due to immense public pressure that the inquest happened at all.

It helped that Tomlinson was an ideal victim. One cynically wonders whether the charges against Alfie Meadows, another victim of police brutality are a pre-emptive attempt at avoiding another inquest into unjustifiable violence.

There are two systems that are visible to me at work in the Tomlinson case. There is the immediate, the police culture of covering up their actions. Then there is the broader culture of placing blind trust in institutions, of victim-blaming, of discomfort with political protest.

There may be more systems. I cannot see the whole picture, none of us can. My brain is a product of its environment and its biology; it will not let me see everything.

PC Simon Harwood is a thug. He does not exist in a vacuum. He is a product of a system, as is everything that came after he attacked a man selling newspapers.

To fight injustice–be it police brutality, be it oppression based on gender, race, or any other factors, be it a broken state–we need to see the system. It is a battle, but it is a battle worth fighting.