Julie Bindel is a controversial figure. A leading feminist, campaigner, author, journalist, Bindel is also known for her remarks which have been seen as transphobic and/or biphobic. On sex work, pornography, trans and bi identity politics, Bindel and I are polls apart. I’ve previously used this blog to criticise some of her arguments and to air our public disagreements. Julie hasn’t been shy of taking me to task, nor have I been shy about responding. Yet despite these disagreements, we come from a similar place on the liberation politics of sexuality. I have suspicion that we agree on more than we disagree. As an academic, I want to understand arguments and disagreements, and as an activist, I want to build alliances where possible.
It was with predictable mixed feelings therefore, that I started reading her new book last week. I breezed through the text in a couple of days. Two core themes emerge from the work. One is ‘coalition politics’, and the challenges that come from ‘LGBT’ or ‘LGBTQ’ and so on. The other big theme – and one which has received public attention – is the idea of sexuality as choice. I’ll come to these themes in a bit, but it’s worth addressing a criticism of the text that I’ve already seen on social media. It relates to the survey which this book is based on, and which people have described as transphobic and biphobic for leaving those groups out. I don’t think ignoring those groups is ‘phobic’ necessarily and in the context that Bindel positions the book, the narrow focus on lesbians and gay men is entirely justifiable. By the logic of the challenging questions Bindel raises on the coalition politics of identity and the focus of this book, it wouldn’t have worked to include trans. I don’t have a problem with it. On the bi aspect, I don’t think the identity is excluded from the book and Bindel addresses the identity (and does not dismiss the label but rather accepts the complexities around it, and how the label can be (mis)used. The survey itself is actually pretty insigficant in the book as a whole, and is tucked away for much of the text. When it does appear it adds little, and frankly you wouldn’t have noticed if it was taken out entirely. Even if you had issues with the survey, I don’t think it impacts per se on this text (which you could equally cite as a criticism if you regard the need for the survey as important – I don’t).
I’ve also been working through Paul Morley’s ‘The North’ whilst reading Straight Expectations and there are parallels. Just as Morley uses his own story to drive the narrative of ‘The North’, so too does Bindel use her story to drive this book. In fact – and I’ve not seen this observed amidst all the identity politics hooha – it’s a very personal book. It reveals an awful lot about Julie Bindel the person, and in doing so gives the reader a real insight into how her positions and perspectives have been formed. I feel I have a much better understanding of why Julie has the views that she does about men, and violence in particular, on the back of this book. I still disagree with the ultimate policy positions that Bindel adopts in certain areas but I ‘get’ (or I think I get) where she’s coming from. I mentioned I’d come back to the ‘coalition’ idea. This is the coalition principally between lesbians and gay men. Bindel weaves this with an excellent overview of LGB/Queer history and the liberation/equality story. She notes – citing Power – that the distinction in the 70s could be seen personified in the observation that ‘the men wanted to talk about cottaging’ at the expense of other agendas. Even within the liberation movement there were divisions, with the creation of the Peter Tatchell fronted Outrage! leading to the creation of the Lesbian Avengers (no, not a Channel 5 TV series) as a lesbian counter-weight organisation. There’s a brilliant quote from one interviewee who says: ‘We fucking hated Outrage! and their demands for easier ways to have sex in public and access to younger boys to do it with.’ At the end of Chapter 4, Bindel concludes that: ‘Until gay men recognise that they have power over women, despite suffering from bigotry because they are not judged as ‘real men’ by the straight patriarchs, they will not and cannot be our allies.’ It’s strong stuff, and a week on from reading the book, I’m still pondering it. I think Julie is potentially right, but I’m not sure how I can adequately address my own prejudices in this respect. Although the L and G are readily lumped together, we are distinct, and being honest and open about our complex desires and motivations would be an important step forward. I don’t think we’ve ever tried that in my lifetime.
The other theme – the idea of sexuality as choice – is one that has been explored elsewhere and has been turned into the controversial PR driver. Dr Adam Jowett has written an excellent piece on The Conversation exploring this. Bindel does seem to challenge the ‘gay gene’ theory and this seems a perfectly legitimate position – I am a bit baffled by the criticism. My own position – rare it seems amongst queer activists- is I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, I’ve studied this area. Those who have don’t seem to know the answer, so why would I? That seems rather uncontroversial. The controversy comes from the idea that if it’s something we therefore choose, we can not choose (and thus this plays into the hands of all the bonkers ‘therapists’ who will ‘cure’ you of your homosexuality. The more complex argument – and one I thought Bindel would have taken up in this book – is that we all choose our sexuality on some level. ‘Coming out’ is a choice and we then decide (on some level) how we live and define our sexuality. What works, what it means for us. These ‘choices’ are as constrained as any choice – limited and defined by our own capital and sociological context. You can listen to Julie expand her thoughts on this issue in a Little Atoms podcast at around the 25min mark.
Bindel also notes the conservative nature of the ’cause’ today, particularly Stonewall, asking Ruth Hunt (the new Chief Exec of the organisation and the Acting CE when this book came out) whether the organisation recognised the demobilisation of the gay movement. It’s unspoken but I think Julie thinks it may do. I know I certainly do. Bindel goes on to explore the domesticity and new identity pressures that emerge from what some might describe as a demobilisation. She comments that ‘Gays who are single, either through choice or circumstance must feel as welcome as a pork chop in a synagogue. Given the homosexual monoculture’s veneration of marriage, straight folk probably find less disapproval if they choose not to marry than gays do these days.’ The paragraph had me laughing and nodding in equal measure. Julie later goes on to describe the new connections that families can form, and particularly the presence of children. The subtext is that the new normative homosexual (what I and others have described as the homonoramtive) resembles heteronrativity, thus enforcing the good gay/bad queer divide (inspired by Gayle Rubin, written about by Carl Stychin) which means that sexual outlaws are becoming a distinct group whilst the good gays jump ship and play house with the straights. For me, this is a major sexual and identity realignment, created by law and with profound future questions for law. Bindel is to be praised for passionately putting forward this argument and doing it in an easy to understand way. Julie comments: ‘At least you will have something to discuss over the Jamie Oliver roast salmon if your children go to the same primary school. I can’t imagine a dinner party with one couple discussing a recent trip to Ikea and the other advising on where to buy the best poppers in Vauxhall. Liberals, in reality, still think we are weird.’
Bindel goes on (to my pleasant surprise) to criticise James Wharton’s comments about saunas, and the need to close them down, reflecting the new status of homosexuality in society. Julie Bindel in praise of public sex, I needed a lie down after that paragraph. Don’t worry, Julie was back on usual form a little earlier when she is critical of pornography, but she notes – and I found this fascinating – her earlier criticism at an early 80s event in leeds where she criticised Mary Whitehouse and her agenda for censoring pornography and sex on TV. Bindel doesn’t really engage with this curious twist of history in the context of porn, which is disappointing, but makes me think that Bindel’s porn position is more complex than I and others have traditionally believed. Either way, this is an extremely engaging read and a very important book. It’s fearless – as you would expect from Julie Bindel – but is also personal, funny and thought-provoking. There remains much that we disagree on, but I understand better now why we disagree, and I also know that there’s even more we do agree on.
I bought the book via the Guardian Bookshop which also seems to be cheapest source I could find. Buy it here.