Twitter may on occasion be a place where dialogue and discourse go to die, or more accurately, to shout itself hoarse until nothing of intelligence can be heard over the incessant noise – but sometimes it starts an interesting thought. One of my favourite Twitter follows is Laurie Penny, I will say nothing more on who she is, simply that your life will likely be made more interesting by reading her work. She posed a question a few days ago, and I think the quality of the question can be judged by the fact that the trollish responses make up a surprisingly small proportion of the total replies – her post read:
“I know many anxious, lonely, heterosexual Caucasian gentlemen worried about their place in this weird world who have managed not to drink the anti-feminist, neo-nationalist kool-aid. If you’re one of them, what stopped you going that way? Was there a moment of choice?”
I posted my own immediate thoughts to the tweet, but felt I wanted to write further about what came up for me. Firstly, for most of my life I have identified as anxious, lonely, hetero, Caucasian gentleman worried about my place in the world. I’ve always viewed nationalism with a deep suspicion and would consider myself a feminist although I feel more comfortable leaving that for others to judge. I’ve never felt particularly strange in terms of seeing feminism as a positive force, but I was struck by the number of respondents who in fact did pinpoint moments of choice – seriously the whole thread is worth a browse, it’s enlightening, frightening and uplifting and I highly recommend.
Increasingly I find myself really uncomfortable with notions of gender stereotypes and norms and feeling irked by the fact that so many people seem to want to keep them. Now I don’t consider myself as particularly ‘woke’, being on a counselling degree has certainly broadened my horizons, but I genuinely do think that one of the main reasons that gender, and toxic, ‘incel’ masculinity in particular have not had as much of a conventional effect on me is down to my life with a disability. Now before I go any further, I want to stress as ever that I don’t pretend to speak for any experiences of disability except my own, there will always be contrary examples, but I do think that the complications that physical disability brings to gender expectation has ended up working in my favour. The outcomes do not necessarily mirror anyone else’s completely – and I do not claim this.
It seems to me that so many of the conventional toxic male gender stereotypes of physical prowess, being macho, being a breadwinner and sexual promiscuity were not necessarily placed upon me by wider society. While this may have led to a greater sense of independence and being able to go my own way to some extent (for example I was never particularly bothered by the teasing I took for doing so much singing in school – which was considered ‘girly’), and possibly to a greater sense of empathy and emotional intelligence later on, this did not by default leave me in a place of greater happiness or security. Humans are tribal creatures and we love to have a sense that we fit in and belong, when that doesn’t happen this can lead to questions of identity and who we are – and this is exactly what happened. I’ve written before about how ableist norms that are for many disabled people unobtainable put us in a difficult bind. I didn’t see myself as disabled first, it was not shied away from in my family and upbringing, but it just didn’t matter very much and so when I experienced prejudice in high school or elsewhere, I didn’t always give disability the weight of influence that it deserved. As I would have said at the time, you play the cards you’re dealt and you get on with things.
So I played the cards I was dealt but I played them from a position where I considered myself on an equal footing. Which when you look back, you realise wasn’t always the case. I tried out for sports teams well into my teens despite the fact that deep down I knew my body could no longer compete at that level, it wasn’t that I felt I was owed a place, I just wanted to be considered in the same breath as everyone else – to be seen as normal. I desperately wanted to be one of the lads. That male expectation of physical prowess was clearly never going to work and I knew that at a level much closer to the surface than I would have admitted at the time, what I didn’t appreciate in my teens and have come only recently to understand, is quite how desexualised I was as a disabled teenager and how the male stereotype of promiscuity was not so much as unmet as completely unthought of. Maybe it’s because of an innate curiosity, but disabled people will have to field a lot of indelicate enquiries from randoms in public just wanting to know our intimate details. Can we have sex? Do we have sex? How do we toilet? Do we have carers? Do we work? (note this is often asked in lieu of what we do), can we walk? Can we live independently This can make many people feel like their physical personal space is microscopic and their bodies something akin to public property – especially if you’re randomly patted on the head or have someone unwanted grabbing your hand as you cross the road as happened to me the other day…And if you consider that many if not most physically disabled people will undergo physio or surgery at some point in early life and generally pretty regularly our sense of physical privacy and bodily autonomy can also be pretty screwed up.
We may be seen in some ways as public property in terms of our bodies, but often the idea of disabled sexuality is met with confusion or repulsion. I had no disabled adults in my life that I could talk to about this and so again, I had to look at things through the lens of an ableist norm. A norm that took the idea of me as a romantic being as a dark sick joke. I knew from a very early point in high school that I was not allowed anywhere near the dating game and the way I dealt with that unrecognised ableism was not to challenge it, but to respond by designating those in the game as shallow, vapid and with nothing of interest or real personality to them. In some ways this was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. And it did nothing to address my own feelings, desires or thoughts on the subject. I simply put it away in a box and protected it closely as this point was such a sore one. And as you may know, the longer you leave something without addressing it, the more chance it has to fester and grow into an internal demon
This was a demon I nurtured for most of a decade without any kind of dialogue about it, other than an internal one which was extremely poisonous. Why then did it not make me an angry, woman-hating incel? Part of it is upbringing, part of it is strong female characters in my life and part of it dare I say is that I’m not a total shit, but an uncomfortable truth and an unforeseen benefit is that because I internalised so much of the ableism on the topic and turned it in on myself I couldn’t feel like the world owed me anything. I felt an unlovable, unappealing, gross humanoid. It wasn’t that the world was unfair, it was that it was entirely justified in treating me this way.
One of the major parts of my work with my therapist over the past eighteen months has been figuring out so much of my poor body image and uncovering this unspoken history. Internalised ableism is something I’ve written about before on this blog and undoubtedly will again, but I’m happy to say that it’s something that I’m starting, with hesitancy, to shed. Toxic self-image is not a recommended vaccine against incel culture, but it is undeniably one of the few positive side-effects. Just over a month ago, I found myself completely unexpectedly in a new relationship, one of the things that this has brought to light for me, is how much of an impact toxic masculinity can have on people over time and I feel even in this short time both disturbed by how much I’ve learned, and a sense of unlikely blessing that disability has played a role in seeing gender norms as something outdated and dogmatically two dimensional.