What do we want from rape sentencing?

My Facebook feed is currently awash with discussion of the Stanford rape conviction which has resulted in a six month sentence, apparently due to the Judge’s concern about the potential “impact” a longer sentence might have on the young man involved.

I’m often conflicted when I see people calling for longer sentences for serious crimes, most often rape. I think we’re in a strange situation at the moment with our popular conception of the purpose of the prison system in general, and sentence lengths in particular. The specifics of this case aren’t really central to my concern – it sounds horrific, and the comments by the young man’s father are, as people are rightly pointing out, revolting.

This case is just the latest in a long line of regular debates about sentences for violent sexual assaults being too short. Whether they are or not depends, in large part, on what you think the purpose of a long prison sentence is. I think when people react to these cases it’s primarily because sentences for rape often seem out of step with sentences for other forms of assault, which seems to indicate that judges consider them less serious. I understand why that disturbs people. It seems insane that you could get six months for violently raping an unconscious woman, but ten years for beating the living hell out of a man – or, since this was in the US, even for daring to engage in recreational drug use while black.

At the same time, I personally don’t think the primary purpose of the length of a prison sentence should be to communicate the judge’s assessment of the seriousness of the crime. I suspect I’m unusual in this regard – for most people I think prison serves mixed purposes, a little retribution, a little deterrence, a little censure, perhaps some rehabilitation, maybe some incapacitation. Everybody’s desired mix of purposes is different, and that will affect how they want sentences dispensed. If you want mostly censure or retribution, then sentence length should be proportionate to seriousness, and sentences for rape should probably be longer, on average, than they currently are.

I don’t think the average prison is doing much on the rehabilitation front, and I think if you want to rehabilitate someone, there are better places to try to do that than an American prison. So if you’re someone who has the dial turned right up on rehabilitation, I’m not sure you ought to support longer sentences for rape – I think, unless you’re in Norway or Sweden, you probably ought to support different sentences for rape.

The evidence on deterrence is in, and it’s pretty clear – prison windmills don’t work that way. Severe sentences have a mild deterrent effect at best on the people who serve them, and very little effect on anybody else. Most people who commit violent crimes either don’t think they’ll get caught, or don’t weigh that risk especially heavily in the moment. So even if you have the dial turned way up on deterrence, again, I think you’re looking for satisfaction in the wrong place. Cultural change might stop some men becoming rapists, but as far as my limited understanding of criminology goes, harsher prison sentences aren’t likely to.

I think the argument for incapacitation is the easiest one to make, but it has some unpleasant implications, and I struggle with them. Age is a very significant predictor of recidivism among violent criminals – most young men become less violent as they get older. So on one hand, there’s apparently very little point keeping anybody in prison past say age 50 – genuine life sentences for murder or other violent crimes are usually gratuitous, if your purpose is to protect others, unless the offender is someone who’s remained violent even at that advanced age.

But let’s say you have a 20 year old who has just committed a violent crime – at what point are you justified in keeping him in prison until he’s 30? 40? Is a 50% probability of preventing one case of grievous bodily harm or one rape worth 20 years of someone’s life, given that we can never actually know who will reoffend and who won’t?

I don’t think these questions are easy to answer. I think the current Stanford case is repugnant, but I truly have no idea what I think an appropriate sentence would be. The current justice system in America is so dysfunctional in how it deals with both rape victims and with young offenders; the sentence I would argue for in a remotely sane society is completely disconnected from the actual reality of the situation in California in 2016.

I understand the frustration of people who want longer sentences to communicate the seriousness of rape relative to other forms of assault. I especially understand the rage of people who see a well-off white man receiving a six month sentence for rape while there are black teenage boys serving years for fucking shoplifting or for marijuana possession. But what I think we on the left need to grapple with seriously is what we actually want rape sentences to achieve. Do you believe in prison as punishment? Do you think that young man would have a healthier attitude towards women after spending several years in the company of other violent men? How many people are you willing to lock away for how many years to prevent one of them reoffending, given that no justice system is perfect?

I don’t expect most people I know to come to the same conclusions about these issues as me. I don’t think these questions have straightforward, obviously correct answers. There’s this current running through so many discussions about rape, this need for simplicity – you see it in victim blaming (just never leave your house, problem solved!), you see it in discussions of consent (yes means yes! Consent is just like tea, it’s so easy!), and you see it in discussions of what we want from the justice system. What but we want from the justice system isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, simple, because rape isn’t simple. If it were, I’d like to think that we would have found better ways of dealing with it, by now.

Hope and complicity.

South Africa is a hard place to feel hopeful.

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few months and years about the survivability of progressive and radical politics. How do you remain motivated and politically engaged in a world that is so horrifying on so many levels? I wonder is part of the moderation of people’s politics as they get older a kind of burn out, rather than just a self-serving shift to the right to protect newly accumulated wealth. Perhaps it’s Paris, but I don’t know how people can remain sane in the face of a lot of what happens in the world.

I spoke with a friend this weekend about the deep, intractable political divisions here, and about how impossible it seems for him to have productive political discussions with white South Africans. I don’t know how people don’t go insane here. The white people in the BMWs drive around pretending not to see the black people begging at the traffic lights. The black people begging at the traffic lights somehow, somehow, smile at me through the windshield.

Complicity is toxic. A huge part, the main part, of why I couldn’t live here is the extent of the complicity I would feel. It’s also why living in Australia is so difficult. How do you avoid feeling complicit when you are so comprehensively outnumbered that you can’t hope to effect any structural change, and so any good you might do is bounded by an unjust system?

What would happen if my neighbour with his two BMWs seriously morally confronted the wealth inequality here? How would he live with himself? It’s the same problem with veganism and climate change. Confronting the scale of the problem and the extent of your complicity in it, and your powerlessness to stop it, threatens your sanity. It seems impossible – how could the world be so limitlessly unjust? How are we to live in such a world?

“If the rule you followed led you to this…”

Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex just wrote an interesting series of musings in response to a blog post by a David Chapman, which was itself a summary of a guy called Robert Kegan’s work on different “stages” of thinking as they apply to ethics. Kegan posits these stages as being developmental (that is, linear), which I’m not entirely comfortable with, but I do think the model has significant descriptive power in terms of how people think about ethics, regardless of how you want to rank those modes of thought.

To summarise very briefly (based on Chapman’s summary, which may be a total bastardisation of Kegan’s work, since I haven’t read it). Stage 1 is being an infant, with no ethical component to experience or behaviour. Stage 2 is what you see in toddlers and primary school age children, where ethical behaviour is essentially transactional and other people’s concerns are instrumental – “If you let me play with your doll, I’ll let you borrow my coloured pencils”.

Stage 3, or what Chapman refers to as “communal” ethics, generally appears in adolescence and is a mode in which other people’s interests become valuable in themselves – this is an ethics that prizes loyalty and maintaining relationships. So if I’m your friend and something hurts my feelings, it’s wrong for you to do it, because we’re friends and my feelings should matter to you. If you do it anyway, apparently you cared more about whatever it was than my feelings, and our friendship isn’t that important to you. You have betrayed me. I wouldn’t have done the same to you.

Stage 4 or systematic ethics is when you move into the area of abstract reasoning about ethical problems – where you make ethical decisions based on principles rather than solely on the basis of the consequences of your specific actions for people you care about and your relationships with them. You knew that sleeping with my ex would hurt my feelings, but he and I broke up a long time ago, and you don’t think it’s reasonable for one person’s feelings about a past relationship to prevent other people having their own relationships indefinitely. You made your choice not because you don’t care about our friendship or my feelings, but by applying a general principle – it’s okay to sleep with people’s exes if the relationship was a long time ago. If you’re lucky, I’ll understand.

Stage 5 or meta-systematic ethical thinking is type of thinking which involves comparing systems and contemplating the purpose of systematic thinking itself. In this stage you might realise that the systems we use to govern out ethical thinking are not laws in themselves, but actually merely tools that we use to solve ethical problems. So you could espouse the principle above, apply it, and threaten our friendship – but equally, you could choose another principle, say, “Bros before hoes”. Which one of these you chose depends on the kind of person you are, what you value, and what kind of thinking you find intuitive. If you’re a quantitative type of person, you’ll be drawn to utilitarianism (is your happiness and that of my ex a greater concern than my pain?). If you’re a hand-washing coward I’m sorry I mean a principled and noble spirit, you’ll be drawn to deontology (sleeping with friend’s exes can’t be forbidden, or nobody would ever get laid). If you have a strong sense of justice and fairness, you’ll be drawn to Rawls, and so on (have I found another boyfriend while my ex is still single, miserable, and in need of being cheered up?).

Both Alexander and Chapman talk a bit in their entries about how systematic thinking looks to communal thinkers – that is, it looks calculating, insensitive and selfish. What the hell do you mean you have principles – you just fucked my ex! We’re supposed to be friends! What they don’t talk about, because they are what my friend Andy calls Hyper-Rational-Dude-Bros (and I say that with love, as a lover of rational dudes) is that from a meta-systematic perspective that’s a totally fair assessment of systematic ethics. (Maybe because they didn’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that they’re at stage 5 – it’s cool, I’m cool with it, we’re doing this, let’s go.)

Here’s the thing about systematic, principled ethical thinking – jeez it’s appealing when it lets you disregard the feelings of people whose feelings you really wanted to disregard anyway. The reason it seems calculating and insensitive to communal ethical thinkers is because it is. A lot of feminist critique of Kantian ethics in particular takes this view – that the whole practice of reducing ethics down to a system of rules that totally disregard the value of interpersonal relationships is fucking warped, and reduces human beings to computers spitting out “42”. What the hell is your ethics for, if it lets you wash your hands of the harm you do to the people close to you? How could that system have even a tangential connection to “doing the right thing”?

As is probably clear, I have a lot of time for that critique. The reasons for that, though, are themselves things beyond my control – what Thomas Nagel refers to as “moral luck”. I’m a woman, and whether it’s genetic or conditioned, I appear to be much more ethically concerned with other people’s feelings and welfare than most of the male, systematic thinkers I know. I’m also a staunch consequentialist, and again, that’s for reasons of intuition and sentiment, not due to careful weighing up of its merits as a system. Non-consequentialism viscerally repulses me – I have a genuine reaction of disgust to a lot of its applications. And I know that many non-consequentialists have the exact same response to many applications of utilitarianism, in particular.

And this is the thing about meta-systematic ethical thinking – you can recognise that the systems you’ve chosen are actually somewhat arbitrary choices, and can be arbitrarily disregarded, if you want. If you’re a utilitarian because you like numbers, not because utilitarianism is actually the best tool for every single ethical job, then you don’t actually have to use it for every single ethical job. And that means that you can decide to retain some of communal ethics in your thinking at the expense of systematic thinking, if you want to value your relationships.

Rigid systematic ethical thinking is actually a fool’s errand, if you’re a deep thinker. Perhaps it’s possible to be a strict Kantian and live a normal life (I’ve never met anybody doing it), but trying to apply utilitarian thinking to your everyday life will fuck you right up. Look at Peter Singer. The demands of strict utilitarianism are impossible; they cause most people deep moral conflict, suicidal guilt, and total revulsion at various points in their lives. Smug Kantians will tell you this is proof that it’s a bad system and you should read some Kant, but Nagel has a better answer.

There are no answers to many ethical problems.

The discomfort we feel watching Peter Singer try to pretend that he would torture an infant to death to save a city from terrorists shows that that is not a satisfactory answer to the problem of the rights of the one versus the rights of the many, but it doesn’t imply there must be a better answer. Those questions don’t have answers. We don’t live in a morally rational universe, ethics is not mathematics, and you are not a computer. Searching for the single unifying ethical theory of the universe will either send you insane or, ironically, turn you into an asshole. When there are conflicts between the interests of your loved ones and your ethical principles, you should struggle with that. It’s not a moral failing.

You can try to be a purely systematic ethical thinker, if you want. As a consequentialist I think the world would be better if more of us tried to be more systematic, and I try to be reasonably systematic in my own thinking. But I accept my own limitations and the limitations of the world I live in, and I accept that other people’s feelings often matter to me regardless of whether I think they’re in the right. Communal ethical thinking isn’t sufficient to solve complex interpersonal conflicts, let alone societal conflicts, as Alexander and Chapman rightly point out. Applied exclusively and without reflection it can be absolutely monstrous. But the sentiments that underlie that type of thinking have value, because people have value. Even when they’re wrong.

Further reading, if you’re into this sort of thing:
Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics at Cambridge
Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck

This Changes Nothing

These pieces of Joseph Heath’s on Naomi Klein were interesting and uncomfortable reading. He talks about his developing something of a fixation on her book This Changes Everything, and about his frustration with the success of her work in general given its clear failings. Specifically, he believes Klein fails to formulate a coherent policy that is sufficient to address the problems she correctly identifies, and that the policy position she does formulate is driven primarily by moral and ideological values that are broader than the book’s topic of climate change.

He begins his later piece with a comment on the popularity of political writers like Klein and Chomsky among undergraduates and young radicals, and the way that they seem to quietly fall out of favour as people get older. This is an interesting observation, but I think he fails to properly address the mechanism underlying that phenomenon. That phenomenon reveals why Klein isn’t really a fish worth frying.

The phenomenon he describes is totally real. I recall being impressed by No Logo when I read it in my late teens, but although I looked at the Shock Doctrine, I really had no interest in reading it, especially given that it was the size of a phone book. I was aware that Klein was writing on climate change now but I have to confess I didn’t even bother looking up this last book, and couldn’t have told you what it was called until I read Heath’s piece yesterday. I have aged out of the Klein-reading years.

Heath describes This Changes Everything as being predominantly a series of anecdotes that support Klein’s existing political convictions – that large corporations use state power to oppress ordinary people. I share that conviction with her. What Heath fails to apprehend, I think, is how important those anecdotes are for the political development of young radicals. The following reflects my own experience as the kind of person Heath is talking about – the kind of person who reads Naomi Klein in her late teens, but not in her late twenties. I should make it clear that I think Heath’s assessment of Klein is entirely correct and that I enjoyed his posts. Nonetheless, I think his concern about her influence is naïve.

When you first develop political beliefs that are to the far left (or, presumably to the far right) of the mainstream political discourse in your society, those beliefs often develop out of moral intuitions that are not necessarily specific or derived from direct experience. As a young leftist you develop a general moral sense – which Heath identifies in Klein – that ordinary people are being exploited and oppressed by forces over which they have little control, but which it seems like, in a supposedly democratic society, they should have control. More and more you feel like you’ve identified a profound problem that the majority of people in your society don’t seem to take seriously, and this is disturbing. You develop a persistent sense of being the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Work like Klein’s and Chomsky’s, which is heavy on description but only moderate on analysis and light on detailed prescription, is appealing because it validates that moral sense with examples of specific injustices that prove to you, yes, ordinary people are being exploited by powerful forces. This is reassuring – somebody else, a public figure, sees that the emperor is naked and is exposing the machinations of the lying tailor.

Heath is bemused by Klein talking about police brutality in a book that is ostensibly about climate change, but I doubt the passage he describes struck many on Klein’s young radical audience as at all out of place. As he observes, reading writers like Klein and Chomsky is part of a process by which you collect specific examples that affirm that broad moral intuition – Israel is oppressing the people of Palestine, Nike is exploiting workers in low income countries, factory farming is exploiting workers and oppressing sentient animals, police oppress and brutalise people from marginalised groups, banks receive state assistance on a scale and with a readiness that poor people in Western countries dare not even dream of. If it’s all in the same book, so much the better.

Heath’s mystification at Klein’s failure to describe a policy position that he, a professor of philosophy and expert in public policy finds sufficiently coherent and nuanced is reminds me of the Conservative response to Occupy Wall St. “But what do they want” forty-something financiers asked of twenty-something liberal arts students. What they wanted, in broad strokes, was incredibly obvious – they wanted a state that supported them and other ordinary people more generously than it supported banks and billionaires. They wanted redistribution of wealth, and particularly relief from the crushing student loan debts they were forced to take on for even a chance of economic security in a nation with a gaping social safety net. They were outraged that they were being denied that in the same country that spent literally billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions and executives who had broken the law, all while imprisoning black teenagers for smoking pot and letting people with cancer go bankrupt paying for their chemo.

The forty something financiers cannot possibly be so stupid that they didn’t understand that, but of course, that isn’t actually what they were asking for. What they meant by that question, I think, is that they wanted twenty one year old gender studies and political science students to outline, in detail, an entirely new and viable economic system that was consistent with the classical economics the financiers themselves learned at university. And that is absurd.

Klein is the political equivalent of a popular science writer. Expecting her to formulate coherent, detailed, viable climate policy is like expecting Ben Goldacre to design a drug approval system for Britain. That’s not their job! If it was, we would never have heard of either of them, because they would be wonking away in a public sector office somewhere, hidden from view and public discourse.

Klein’s job, as in the job that young radicals pay her to do by buying her books, is to give them a better understanding of specific injustices that speak to their political concerns. That is important, although the older I get the less I trust people like Klein and John Pilger to relate these injustices honestly, and the less I read them. Of course a few books full of examples of states and companies behaving badly won’t be sufficient to turn young radicals into public policy experts, although perhaps it will be sufficient to inspire a small proportion of them to go into the relevant careers or activism full time after they finish uni.

Heath is right that Klein’s work is clouded by her ideological fervour, and I don’t doubt that letting her or anybody like her decide environmental policy in Canada would be a disaster. But the phenomenon he describes with people losing interest in work like hers as they get older acts as a kind of natural firebreak against that outcome. People like me read writers like Klein when we’re young, and then we go into careers in specific specialist areas. Eventually a lot of us will develop the kind of expertise Heath wants on one or two particular topics that we choose either as professions or as causes to which we dedicate substantial time – be it workplace law, migrant health, environmental protection, or whatever.

Personally, I’m realising more and more that I would need a degree in economics to formulate coherent and nuanced views on a lot of issues that matter to me, but I don’t see any time in my future to acquire one, or even to teach myself that content. I will probably never have views of sufficient coherence and complexity on redistributive taxation, socialised healthcare, or climate change policy to satisfy someone like Heath. It’s simply not realistic for the average progressive person to become an expert in economics, history, environmental science and law, such they could formulate coherent and realistic policy suggestions on police brutality, climate change, economic globalisation, workplace relations, socialised medicine, drug patents, over-incarceration, factory farming, the death penalty, abortion, international relations, and all of the other issues people on the left tend to care about. At best, we might become experts on one of these, and if we’re incredibly lucky we may actually be able to do something meaningful to address it one day.

Such is the tragedy of the ageing radical. I get just as pissed off as Heath when I see other lefties saying dumb shit about my area of expertise (such as it is), but I also realise it doesn’t really matter, because the radical left has so little power in English-speaking democracies at present. I’m not really sure what real world outcome Heath is worried might occur due to Klein’s work. Public opinion is so little swayed by the views of young radicals that I find his concern about Klein’s influence almost quaint. She may be a recognised public intellectual, but ultimately, the young people who read Naomi Klein live in a society governed by people who seriously don’t give a fuck about their opinions – that’s why they read her, and why Heath has nothing to fear from the fact that they do. The depressing reality is that if they ever influence public policy, it will be once they have amassed sufficient expertise to be accorded some position of authority and respect. A professorship, perhaps.

The state is not your friend

So Chris Brown has just been refused a visa to Australia on the basis of his “character” and his criminal record. Chris Brown is a shitbag. I saw that without any reservation. But this is the nth time I’ve seen Australian feminists petition the state for a visa refusal on the basis of character, mostly regarding pick up artists and other MRA shitheels, and jeez but it makes me uncomfortable.

Freddie deBoer wrote in the NY Times recently about his discomfort at seeing student activists turn to university administrations to enforce their political desires. This kind of thing seems to be really common both in the US and the UK – rather than stage a protest or run a talk of your own, just try to get a talk or a speaker banned. DeBoer writes that he wishes these students would realise the administration is not their friend. I wish Australian feminists would realise the state is not our friend.

And this is much harder in the sphere of domestic violence because so often the state is the only means of protection women have from violent men, even as it fails us regularly and catastrophically. The state is the only thing that can protect us from men like Adrian Bailey, unless we want to live like prisoners ourselves. But the state is not our friend.

I see this again and again – other feminists advocate for the invention or application of specific laws as resolutions to specific feminist problems without regard for how those laws will actually be applied by conservative governments. A law that allows refusal of visas on the basis of character will be used to exclude people with histories of political activism. A law that allows the restriction of movement on the basis of criminal history will be used to oppress people with criminal histories relating to drugs. A law that recognises fetal personhood will be used, eventually, inevitably, to imperil women’s access to safe abortion. A law that places the burden of proof on the accused in sexual assault cases will be used disproportionately against men of colour. The state is not our friend.

There’s some kind of mistake that I think arises from a failure to appreciate what the state is, what laws are, and how they differ in nature fundamentally from other forms of regulation of the relationships between people. Because you don’t have to think this way about social exclusion, right? When you say “I won’t remain friends with people who have physically abused their partners”, you don’t need to think about whether that logically implies you can’t be friends with people who have broken other laws or engaged in other antisocial behaviour, because you’re a person, and you can make those decisions on a case by case basis.

Law does not work this way. Laws are not applied logically and critically on a case-by-case basis. They’re not even applied mindlessly and dispassionately. They are applied, consistently, at the expense of marginalised people. Criminal law does not get applied the same way to black men as to white men. Visa exclusion laws do not get applied the same way to millionaires as to political activists. If your feminism fits into a broader left-wing political framework, you need to grapple with this. By invoking a state power in specific cases you legitimise the use of that same state power in all cases – you can believe all you want that the law should be applied fairly and always in favour of the left’s priorities, but it isn’t. More often than not it is applied in the opposite way, because governments are conservative, and the state is not our friend.

We rightly recognise that we need feminism because there are problems liberalism and anarchism can’t deal with effectively. I feel like we’re more and more forgetting that we need to retain liberalism and anarchist scepticism because there are problems that feminism can’t deal with effectively. It’s hard to be an anarchist feminist in a world where women are frequently dependent on others for protection, and it’s hard to be a liberal feminist in a world where formal equality alone will never lead to substantive equality for women. I don’t have the answer to those problems. But the answer is not to throw our lot in with the state, celebrating when it exercises its power in our favour and turning a blind eye to the daily abuse of that power for regressive ends. There are cases where we are forced to turn to the state for protection because there is genuinely no other option – but denying visas to Chris Brown or some MRA shitheel are not those cases. And the state is not our friend.

A boy named Sue.

Again and again, when I listen to trans people talking about their childhoods, I hear things I remember. I remember just being mystified by girls, never understanding why they liked any of the things they did. Being angry every Christmas at the useless, inappropriate, pink presents my grandmother would give me. Crying when I was told I had been asked to be a “flower girl” at my cousin’s wedding. Being hurt when other girls saw me fishing caterpillars or millipedes out of the bushes in the playground and shrieked with disgust. Being followed around the playground by older girls who were taunting me for having a deep voice – their high-pitched sing-song, “Yoooou talk like a booo-ooooy”. (Our kindly GP, on the other hand, God bless him, told me I could be a jazz singer.)

I had some female friends, but I would frequently find myself excluded because their other female friends didn’t like me. I was not popular among mothers, either. I was much more comfortable with the group of boys I was friends with from ages 8 through to the end of primary school. I liked the games they played. They weren’t afraid of bugs and didn’t think I was weird. The difference was so stark. I remember thinking, at age nine or ten, before I had ever heard of trans-anything, that I felt like a boy in a girl’s body. Those words. In sex ed in grade six, someone put a question in the anonymous box about “sex changes”. Almost everybody in the class turned around, and looked at me.

This is not a coming out post.

Puberty hit, and the world changed around me. Though I was still one of the weird kids in high school, and got along okay with the popular boys but never the popular girls, I found a space to exist in which wasn’t as constrained by gender. I was a goth, and that was what was strange about me and my clothing, not its gender non-conformity, even though I was still wearing baggy pants and oversize t-shirts.

I remember the only other girl in my first year of high school who wore pants instead of a school dress. Christine, with the very short hair. We were 13. Now I’m 28, and I go to work in jeans and t-shirt most days with short hair and no makeup, and it’s simply not an issue. I’ve never even identified as queer, because I feel very strongly that there should be space for women like me in the world. Overwhelmingly, there is.

We gender little girls so much more aggressively than we do women. I didn’t change. I still don’t have very many female friends, and those I do tend to mostly have male friends as well. But as an adult this is barely worthy of comment, while as a child it marks you out as a mutant. Kids are shitty. I hated being a little girl, and with every method of resistance open to me, I refused to be one. I am surprised, sometimes, by how comfortable I am being a woman. But I didn’t change. I am no more gender conforming now than I was as a child – it just doesn’t matter anymore.

Why am I writing this? I suppose because I’ve never seen anybody who isn’t trans describe having a childhood like mine. I wonder how many people who grow up feeling like that become (remain?) trans, and how many, like me, feel the mould loosen around them and become comfortable as adults. Is it 50/50? 10/90? 90/10? I have no idea.

I spoke to the woman who runs the gender clinic at the children’s hospital recently, and she said they see a lot of kids pre-puberty now. I wonder, if I was growing up now, would I have gone? If I had told my mother how I felt, or if she had googled my social problems, would we have wound up there? I don’t remember feeling the kind of intense distress that drives so many trans kids to suicide, so probably not, I suppose.

If I had googled how I felt at age ten, like I’m sure a lot of kids are doing now, would I have found my way to tumblr and assumed I was going to transition as an adult? I suppose I would have – I don’t remember having any expectation that I would ever feel differently, or feeling any greater affinity for the grownup trappings of womanhood than the fluffy pink bullshit of girlhood.

I was lucky, I’m certain, to have a feminist mother and to grow up being read books with titles like “The Tough Princess”. There was space in my house for a girl like me, just not in the world outside. Trans kids kill themselves at a rate of knots, even in 2015. The mould constricting me as a kid gave out, eventually, but clearly that doesn’t happen for everybody – the world I find plenty of space in as an adult continues to crush and suffocate others. So I guess what I want to say is this. If you know a gender non-conforming kid, or especially a gender non-conforming teenager: make space. Make space.

There is a line that ends with me.

I am my mother’s daughter; her mother’s granddaughter; her mother’s great granddaughter. A thread reaches back beyond history, through women’s lives that I cannot conceive of. I am standing at the end of this line.

It always seemed sad to me that women’s names are lost every generation in the West. Men share a name with their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers, while women lose their names within their own lifetimes. And yet it always seemed foolish to me, the obsession of patriarchs in period dramas that the family name should live on, that there must be sons. Until now. Suddenly I apprehend it, the breath-taking gravity of the decision to be the last in a line, to be an ending.

Perhaps my brother will have a daughter. Perhaps she will look like me.

Sharing knowledge about motherhood is such a fundamental exchange between women in the same family. There are discussions my mother and I will never have. There are things she will never have to teach me, things I will never have to learn. What to expect during labour, how to breastfeed, whether to co-sleep. If I acquire this knowledge it will be academic, anthropological. Foreign. We will never really share it. There is an angle from which I will never view her relationship to me, a circle I can never close.

She has two sisters. They each have two daughters. They have five daughters between them, and one of those daughters has two daughters more, so far. The branches of the tree extend outwards. We are alone, her and I, on our branch.

So much of how she raised me brought me to this, unintentionally. Unyielding and clear. She taught me to know what I wanted, and what I didn’t, and not to compromise for others (including men, perhaps especially men). She taught me to ignore what other people thought I should want, how I ought to behave, what I ought to like. Her own clarity in these matters lead her to university instead of an early marriage, and to motherhood only much later. She made her choices. I am making mine now.

How strange, to choose at a moment in time that you will never be a certain thing. Instead of “not this year, not now, not yet”, to decide now, at this moment, “never”. There are so few such moments in life. It has such a weight, this decision, unlike anything else. I am surprised by it. I expected it to be simpler.

And yet there is simplicity to it. I do not want to be a mother. There is no place in my life for a child, nor does a place emerge in any future life I can imagine wanting to have. Even if I wanted children desperately, I would not be willing to accept the sacrifices associated with having them in this society, where motherhood still costs so much more than it should. In spite of the weight and the complexity of this decision, I am unconflicted.

I am my mother’s daughter, and the last of my line.