Gender on a spectrum

In her last column Courtney Martin challenges the way we think about gender roles, sexual orientatio

Like most teachers, I have a few quirks that seem to emerge over and over again, every semester. I ban the word “weird” from my classroom. It is, in my experience, used as a substitute for critical, original thinking and a buffer from dealing with new learnings and discomfort. Which brings me to my next quirk—I am constantly advocating discomfort. I borrowed this idea from my brother, who borrowed it from Piaget—to be optimally uncomfortable (i.e. just a little, so you can concentrate but feel a little thrown off) is the most fertile time for real learning. And finally, I am constantly talking about spectrums.

One of the questions we ask in feminist theory is: what part of our behavior is socialized and what part is biological? Basically, we are modernising and gendering the nature vs. nurture debate. I ask my students not to peg themselves as one or the other—a social constructionist or an essentialist—but to consider where they might fall on a spectrum and where they might move on that spectrum with regard to specific issues.

For example, are women more prone to multitask naturally or because they have been socialized that way? Some neuroscientists suggest that we have more fibers in our corpus callosums, the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres; this appears to facilitate faster movement back and forth between the right and left brain, and therefore, quicker shifts in thinking and action.

On the other hand, perhaps girls are socialised to believe they are better at multitasking because it props up a whole economic system which depends on women taking on a greater range of responsibilities (sometimes called “the second shift”) than men. Or perhaps both are true. What do you believe? And where does this plop you down on the nature-nurture spectrum? (Note: for far too long the majority of us have indiscriminately placed ourselves on the nature spectrum when it comes to issues of gender and sex.)

Another spectrum that I ask my students to engage is that of sexual orientation. Rather than thinking of attraction as existing on a binary—heterosexual or homosexual—or even as tri—throwing bisexual in the mix—why not consider the possibility that our attractions develop along a spectrum? This rocks the foundations of so many of our current political debates and social realities in a really good, unsettling way. If I’m not heterosexual, but merely participating in a heterosexual relationship at the moment, it changes the way I might consider engaging issues like “gay marriage” or “family values.”

And finally (this one will really blow your mind) what if sex itself exists on a spectrum? Anne Fausto-Sterling, a widely-read and celebrated, feminist scientist, argues that there are in fact five sexes, not two. Four percent of babies are born intersexed, meaning that their reproductive organs don’t all fall into just one category—male or female.

In our current medical system, these babies are “assigned” a sex through reconstructive surgery (sadly, often based on whether the penis appears to have the potential to be “large enough” to be normal.) Four percent! That means that out of a college of 6,000 students, 240 were born intersexed.
That day of class always sends my students home to the dinner table asking, “Mom, dad, was I really a girl when I was born?” By the end of the semester, most parents have been bewildered by at least one question inspired by our class discussions. I consider it an honour.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.