Following FemSoc’s recent girls-only session, where boys asked to leave, Clara Collam and FemSoc’s VP Megan Pallagrass take different stances on whether this was the right decision.
“FemSoc shouldn’t have made boys leave their talk”
It’s 2015, but when at this week’s University of Exeter Feminist Society discussion the committee actively asked men to leave the room on the basis of their gender, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that. It was without a doubt the most illiberal thing I have witnessed while at university.
I should point out that I’m a supporter of FemSoc and believe they had very good intentions. This week’s topic was sexual education, awareness and female sexuality, which is all too often ignored. But this particular decision was shockingly misguided.
My main objection is that it was self-defeating in terms of raising sexual awareness. How can you facilitate a discussion on good sexual conduct when you’ve asked members of the audience to leave? The only way people learn what practices are unacceptable is if they’re explained through the process. Men should be encouraged to hear the female perspective and attempt to learn from it, not be shunned away.
Not only that, but I believe the actions taken by the Feminist Society reinforced the frustrating stereotype that feminism is ‘anti-men’ and exclusive. This idea is a huge hindrance to the feminist cause. Exclusivity is something that FemSoc’s own website states it actively tries to avoid.
Also, the audience weren’t asked to express their own preferences. Despite the decision having already been stated on Facebook, the announcement in the meeting was still met with audible gasps and confusion.
Above all, condemning the decision is clanging illiberalism. FemSoc should champion the liberal ideal of open inclusive discussion, even if it is confrontational, disruptive and awkwardly honest.
“Women need to tackle these issues head on, but nothing will change if the debate is one-sided”
The decision was not only damaging to its goal of increasing sexual awareness but also incredibly hypocritical. In an attempt to create a safe environment the discussion was in fact closed down to a significant portion of the audience. Men may not be able to identify with female sexuality, but that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute positively to a discussion on sexuality, sex education and awareness, which is why the decision taken was incredibly disturbing. In this way FemSoc were no better than religious fanatics who segregate on the basis of gender. You can preach gender equality — it’s a noble goal and one I support — but this week FemSoc couldn’t even recognise its own hypocrisy.
I should stress that this article is not meant as an attack on the people who spoke out about their experiences but on the decision to segregate taken at the session. Speaking out about sexual experiences was brave, and it was an important decision to run the session. But it’s exactly for these reasons why segregating the room on the basis of gender was so disturbing. If the broader goal was to raise greater awareness about what is appropriate sexual conduct, then it’s vital that men and women can participate in this discussion openly, learn from each other, and facilitate an honest dialogue. Yes, women need to tackle these issues head on, but nothing is going to change if the discussion is one-sided.
Discussing sex can be uncomfortable and I accept that in cases it may even be a harrowing experience, but the only way that good sexual awareness is going to increase on campus is if this discussion takes place amongst everyone. A room full of nodding heads, of conformity – one that is not prepared to take into account the views of a large percentage of our student population – is not a good thing for university life and does not help foster good sexual awareness. Allowing a forum to explore different ideas, perhaps even troubling ones, is the only way to a more informed populous and better sexual conduct.
Too many men: FemSoc bites back
The decision to ask male students to leave was made democratically as a whole society in one of our discussion meetings earlier in the term. I suggested the idea of having a ‘self-identifying women only’ space for one of the sessions, which was met with unanimous agreement and encouragement from our members (of all genders). That we would be asking the men to leave was made very clear in the event description on Facebook, which was readily available to anybody who wanted to access it. I visited members of Guild Staff to check that my actions didn’t violate any of their inclusivity polices, and was assured that it didn’t.
“Men have dominated discourse about female bodies for too long”
Although I feel that it’s important for men to get used to women talking about sex, I believe their participation should stop there. Men have dominated discourses about female bodies for too long. Women are given so little space to talk about their sexuality, and are often shamed for doing so to the extent that they become afraid of their own bodies. The discussion we had after asking the men to leave was intended as a safe space for women to talk about sex without shame. The atmosphere we created was a room filled with laughter and open discussion of subjects that I am confident would not have been brought up if there had been men present.
Whilst I accept that segregation reinforces the idea of harmful gender binaries, not allowing room for women-only spaces at this stage of the feminist movement is putting the cart before the horse. It was a talk about women, for women, where we could all explore what it meant to have our sexuality so often dismissed as unnatural or unimportant. I don’t see why it would have been helpful or constructive for the women to have men participate in that discussion. Any man claiming to be feminist would willingly accept that sometimes the best thing they can do to help the movement is to leave the conversation.
Megan Pallagrass, FemSoc VPbookmark me