Chip Shop Blues

I was quite unsettled during my recent visit to the chip shop. I was perhaps already feeling unsettled as I went in, as I was breaking all of my good New Year’s intentions. I had intended not to eat take-aways, I’d intended to prepare our meals from scratch and to maintain a healthier balanced diet. But we’d had a difficult cold and wet day in the fields and the chip shop’s warm smells and bright lights were irresistible. I had done my usual trick of thinking of excuses : I had always said I should eat more fish and I guessed potatoes in chips are, in fact, a vegetable. I’d also worked out my escape strategies; eating less the next day and doing a but more exercise to compensate. I am a master of self-deception and despite the guilt I was initially quite content standing in the queue, in the warmth, smelling the chips and vinegar, while I waited for them to deep fry my order.

My disquiet started as I watched the television high up on the wall behind the deep-fat friers. It was tea-time and the television was tuned to a music video station, MTV or something similar, and I started to watch the performances. I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself rushing out to a record store to rectify my ignorance. Though not my taste, the music was unremarkable pop music. What was remarkable were the videos that accompanied the songs.

The themes of the songs, as far as I could judge, were as paeans to the singer’s virility, if male, or pulchritude, if female. I guess so many songs are, but these seemed less subtle, less sublimated than I recall songs from my youth. The men all described their unbounded stamina while the womenrihanna-small_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma invited you to compare them with other less-fortunate women. Both suggested you’d be better to drop your current partner and choose them if you wanted any chance at future happiness. But is was not the shallow lyrics, nor such a carnal view of love,  that made me feel out of time, it was the accompanying videos.

The videos were comprised of very attractive men and women dressed in very little at all. The dancing, as far as it went, comprised thrusting the genitals, buttocks or breasts towards the camera so as to make their pulchritude fill the frame. Sometimes, lest the viewer had missed the point, it was necessary to jiggle the body parts to catch the attention of anyone who was not paying heed. These movements were coordinated into dance scenes when the dancers skilfully simulated sexual acts with each other just in case the viewer had not got the point of the endeavour. The crassness of the videos unnerved me and set me to thinking about the changes that have occurred in my life and set me to worrying about the future my grandchildren will have.

When I was an adolescent, and my life focussed on sex and all matters sexual, we would sometimes sneak into cinemas showing adult films. At sixteen we could sometimes fool a lackadaisical adult on the desk at the cinema that we were of age to enter. When successful I was able to see films, in technicolour, and with sound, of women with few clothes and some brief nudity. At times I and my friends would see actors simulate sexual acts which were less explicitth than the video in the chip shop. The films I was watching in a public space, at tea time, were stronger than I had seen illicitly in cinemas where the wearing of a raincoat was almost compulsory. Times have certainly changed. Early evening music entertainment in my childhood was a man, with a variety of colourful jumpers, singing while in a rocking chair. To spice it up some dancers may have bounced demurely in the background to the beat of the music. (Val Doonican won all the NME awards in 1965 !).

I worry about these changes not because I fear the effects of nudity nor erotica. These are pleasurable. I fear these changes,  as I feel pleasure, like many things, is relative.  Much of the pain and pleasure we experience in life comes from the change from state to another. If you lived on a very plain diet of beans and rice then the excitement of a meal in a middle-price restaurant would be major. The epicure or gourmand, however, will not be able to enjoy ‘bangers and mash’ after a life of ‘larks tongues in aspic’. The baseline setting of our lives determines what it takes to excite us, to please us or to upset us. I think that there is a danger than this turning up of the background noise of erotica is dangerous.

When we are young we are driven to seek pleasures and focus easily on the erotic. The background setting in the 1950’s and 60′ was quite low. Modesty was considered important and as a consequence it was quite easy to be exciting and sexy – raising hemlines in to 60’s caused a stir as did the wearing of a bikini. Young boys could be excited by an underwear catalogue as it revealed the bra under the blouse. However, the excitement caused by these glimpses of nethergarments had exactly the same frisson as the excitement that boys and girls experience today when they see something risqué. But they start much nearer the top of the scale. My scale started with the excitement of seeing a ‘bra’ or a ‘leg’ and rose from there. When you start with simulated sex and crotch shots there is not a lot further to go. Therefore I fear that the total amount of pleasure that can be experienced will ultimately be smaller.

We know forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest and it is important that we keep some pleasures in reserve. By withholding gratification we allow the potential pleasure to build. If we try and enjoy everything at once we  rob it of its value and end up less pleasure than we could have enjoyed. As in the warning of “Brave New World” we could end up with a world of frequent sexual activity but little enjoyment from it. Standing in the chip shop I felt I was almost there already. I felt as if  in a scene from Blade-runner, in a brash, noisy, gaudy future with images and video all around, all senses stimulated and all pleasures offered but with little prospect of happiness. Next time I’ll peel some potatoes and put some carrots on to boil, it will be safer.

 

 

 

 

I know what not to do.

Margaret Anne Bulkley lived the last 56 years of her life disguised as a man. At about the age of 20 she took on the persona of James Barry in order to Matriculate at Edinburgh University and study medicine. Following this, in order to practice medicine, she maintained this pretence by living as adr_james_barry_28surgeon29 man until her death. When she died in 1865 (coincidentally the year Elizabeth Garrett became the first woman to qualify as a doctor) she had pursued a successful medical career and been promoted steadily becoming Medical Inspector General for South Africa. During this period of pretence it is believed that she managed also to give birth to a daughter while the world still respected her as a successful and powerful man.

We only have to look back a little time to see how much progress we have made. In the past so many of our personal and social roles were held to be closely tied to our sex at birth. Today we do not bat an eyelid when a woman wishes to be a surgeon, a man a nurse, a girl a footballer or a boy a dancer. We don’t think of very many roles being necessarily tied to biological sex. The days when women had to pretend to be men to pursue their desires have gone.

We should remember the travails of women who wanted to pursue aims at the time which were held to be only suitable for men – Joan of Arc as she tried to lead armies, Dorothy Lawrence who worked as a war reporter, Margaret Bulkley  wishing to be a doctor, and countless women who fell in love with other women. Remembering these women will stop us forgetting the ignominious aspect of our history which forced pretence on the few who were able to follow their dreams and stopped so many from even taking their first steps towards them.

We now tend to think there is a rather loose relationship between gender roles and biological sex. Something that is more important for groups and averages than something to be applied to individuals. The  biological differences we have are often subtle, and may help explain why one group is over-represented in one area or another, but are rarely felt to be important for the individual in their selection of, or for, activities.

If a child is born today with desires and aims that have been traditionally been seen as the domain of the other biological sex this is not an insurmountable problem. They may face some resistance, but as society improves this should lessen, but there will be no need for transvestitism, nor any pretence. They can aim for their dreams regardless of their biological sex. They don’t have to don the clothes, or names,  of the other sex and they don’t need to hide or alter their biology.

Thus there would seem no call for a boy who wants to follow gender roles traditionally seen as female to transition and alter their biology. Likewise any girl who wishes to pursue traditionally masculine roles or activities  need not alter their bodily appearance. The gender roles that we are often concerned about may have some of their historical development related to our biology (increased muscle mass may have lead us to see the army as a masculine role, for example) but most now are determined purely socially. Thus if someone feels the roles that they wish to pursue are discordant with their biology then the solution is social. The solution is to push for that role to be open to both biological sexes not to alter the person’s biological sex to fit the social role.

If people want to change their biological sex it must be for reasons other than wanting to pursue what are felt to be sex-inappropriate roles as the barriers facing them are considerably less than the barrier posed by the option of changing one’s biological sex. It would seem that the term gender dysphoria does sum up the primary reason for the desire to transition to the other biological sex. It is not a positive desire to be the other biological sex but rather a distaste or unhappiness (dysphoria) in being in the body you find yourself within.

This is not an unusual feature of psychological disorders arising in early adult life and especially around puberty. In addition to gender dysphoria, dysmorphophobia (a belief that one is disfigured or deformed) and the eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and related disorders) share the core belief by the patient that their body shape or configuration is wrong for them. These are serious, debilitating, and dangerous disorders with extremely high levels of distress and a significant mortality through suicide. Our understanding of these disorders is very poor and our treatments are of only limited efficacy. But we never mistake the faulty body image of the patient with anorexia, or dysmorphophobia, as the solution and make that the target of our treatment. We never offer pointless plastic surgery someone who believes their face deformed nor accept that the patient with anorexia should just continue to fade away and die as they see themselves as too fat. Instead we try and help them adjust to their body, and life, as it is and find ways to live with this.

Unfortunately with transgender patients we break with this tradition and offer to try medications and surgery to make their body fit with their internal thoughts. If such medication and surgery diminished distress and eased the patient it might be seen as a useful, if surprising, therapy. Unfortunately it does not appear to do so. The evidence is scanty but, as the American College of Paediatricans pointed out, work undertaken by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute does not find that surgery to transition people from one sex to another reduces the rate of suicide which remains, sadly, much higher than that in the population as a whole.

I have steadily lost the certainty of youth as I have grown older. I am now much happier to accept that I do not know the answer to many questions. Increased knowledge and experience has lead to reduced acceptance of simple or glib answers. However, although I may not know what to do I sometimes know what we should not do. In this case, whether people want to pursue a life in the gender roles that differ to those of the  body they were born within, either from a desire for the positive aspects of those roles, or from a disgust of their own bodily configuration, then attempts to alter their biological sex would appear unwise. At an individual level, obviously it is their choice and they may do with their bodies as they will, but any unbiased observer would counsel them against this as it is  unlikely to lead them to future happiness. At a societal level, I fear we may look back on this period sadly; we saw the problem of defining peoples’ roles by their genitals which forced the likes of Margaret Bulkley and others into dreadful situations but came up with the solution of making peoples’ genitals match the gender roles ! History may not be kind to us.

Let’s stop genital manipulation.

Let’s stop genital manipulation.

Figure published this week (1) reveals that in the UK 2491 cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) occurred last year between April and September in the United Kingdom. This is far too many and a report which speaks to unnecessary pain, distress and possible future disability. I applaud all those who try and stop this barbarism to young girls.

This is a major moral problem as it lets us know that the rights of children are being ignored. They are being mutilated without their consent and any benefit (religious observance, cultural tradition) accrues to the person organizing it, not to the child. Indeed, for the child, it can only be anticipated to be a negative event in their life. Children are not the property of their parents, they have their inalienable rights, like all people. The only difference in the situation of a child is that, in addition to rights,  their  parents also have a duty  (which they contracted to when they decided to make the child) to take care of the child until it is emancipated.

The child’s rights are largely negative, as with all of us, and are predominately the right not to be subject to aggression or violence. It is the parent’s duty to safeguard this right. Genital mutilation, cutting the child for the benefits of the parent, breaches ths duty of care and infringes the child’s rights.

From a libertarian perspective this moral problem is easy to resolve. Genital mutilation should stop and any parent who perpetrates this on their children is not adequately fulfilling their duty of care and someone else should consider taking this role.

However, it is a moral problem, not a gender problem. This is not an issue of gender rights. To see this as a gender issue blinds us to the many young boys who suffer the same fate. In the UK about 12,200 male circumcisions are done annually. This is not a minor procedure as often portrayed. About 3% of babies have some complication following the procedure, lower rates of infection are reported in around 1 in 50 cases (2) and each year about 100 boys die in the USA following circumcision (3). The long term sequeleae are also important with significant rates of psycho-sexual dysfunction  being recorded.

People often believe that their are health benefits from circumcision in males. Research has not shown this to be the case (4)

People often think the reasons that FGM is done is particularly related to curbing female sexuality. This is wrong. Male mutilation developed from the same drives to curb sexual drive and masturbation. Dr Kellog (5), of the breakfast cereal fame, wrote

“A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment… In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement”

So lets see this as a moral question. Lets fight to push FGM into the history books where it should remain, but let us not forget our sons while we protect our daughters and let us stop male genital manipulation at the same time.

Boy or girl it is the same crime.

 

 

(1) Sky News – FGM case reported every 109 minutes in England

(2) Boyle GJ, Svoboda JS, Price CP, Turner JN. Circumcision of Healthy Boys: Criminal Assault? J Law Med. 2000;7:301–10.

(3) Bollinger, D. “Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths,” Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies Volume 4, Number 1 (2010).

(4) Intact America

(5) Narvaez D. Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities. Psychology Today. 2011 September 18.