You know you’ve hit a new low when you’re borrowing money off your children

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

It was, in the end, nothing less than a continuous pleasure having the daughter to stay for a fortnight. She’s gone now, and is missed; she’s off to stay for a while in a household in France that is, a generation up, infested with hippies.
 
These are real hippies – the kind who were at just the right age to inhale the full blowback of flower power in the mid-Sixties. They’re pushing their own sixties now and you can spot them a mile off, which is handy if you want to distance yourself. Remember the television ad for a bank around five or six years ago that featured a woman in a headscarf going on about feng shui? That was her, or close enough to make no difference. I stayed there once myself and gave them a present of some delicious local saucissonand cheese.
 
“Sorry,” she said as I was putting them in the fridge, “but I’m getting back in touch with my Jewish roots and would rather you didn’t put the meat and the dairy products on the same shelf.”
 
She is also very partial to wandering around the place completely starkers. This can come as a surprise at first but I suppose it is always well to have a memento mori around the place, like Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte with his skull inscribed with the legend “Et in Arcadia ego”. I, too, was, or am, in paradise. The ambiguity in tense is crucial.
 
Anyway, my daughter came to stay at just the right time; in other words, at that awkward period at the end of the month when the Lezard economy enters its austerity phase. For those who think I exaggerate when I claim poverty, the last ten days of July were spent working out how to live off £14 and for the first time in my life I started thinking about going to a payday loan company. I find something rather distasteful and dishonest about them, which probably doesn’t come as news to you, and I heard that if you borrow £100 off the best-known one and don’t pay it back for five years, you end up with a debt greater than that of the United States. I haven’t done the maths but I suspect it’s true.
 
In the end, I kept the ship afloat by borrowing small sums, here and there, off a) the Beloved, who gave me a funny look, and b) my friend Toby, to whom I had turned only because I’d already put the bite on c) my daughter. I think it represents A New Low when you’re reduced to that, no?
 
Toby always does his best to help me save face when he gives me my payday loans, which he always does at his local: either handing the money to me as discreetly as a drug dealer handing over his wares in a public place, or else, if scrutiny is unavoidable, pretending that it is money he owes me. This is very chivalrous of him but I think it is important not to dissemble in front of one’s own children and so peeled off a 20 then and there to hand to my daughter, who had come with me.
 
“There,” I said. “Let that be a lesson to you.” In the end, people paid me, and the sun came out, and this month I have resolved not to let things get like that again. Which is why it was probably unwise to treat myself, last sunny Thursday, to a plate of calamari and a carafe of house white at Casa Becci in Marylebone. The problem with austerity is that its relief can lead one into bad habits again. But what is this life if you can’t sit in the sunshine with some fried seafood, a chilled bottle and a copy of this magazine to read at leisure?
 
It is also well to recall civilised modes of existence. The other day I found that my sometime flatmate, this very magazine’s distinguished and gifted correspondent Laurie Penny, had received a death threat on Twitter. It is all too easy, for men at least, to dismiss these as the tiresome yelps of the mindless savage, but a message giving a specific time at which the firebomb in or near your house is going to go off can be the last straw if you get nothing but abuse every time you write an article.
 
It then occurred to me that, had this kind of thing been all the rage a year or so ago, Laurie’s house would have been my house, too, and there may well have been children of mine staying in it as well.
 
It is at this point that contemplation of the kind of scum who get their kicks out of this kind of thing becomes more than academic. I may have gently teased the hippies in the first few paragraphs of this piece, but really, what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding? 
Piggs banks accessible only via hammer. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Getty
Show Hide image

Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.