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Cis privilege and the Three Pillars of Patriarchy? (Re: “Cis” is real)

Date: September 22, 2013

In response to my post “‘Cis’ is real–even if it is carelessly articulated,” an “anti-porn, anti-queer theory, pro-choice radical feminist” asked:

Can you explain what privileges a woman receives from being born female (the class of humans oppressed on the basis of sex) and being raised as girls (the gender assigned to them to maintain the hierarchy of men > women)?

There are many “cisgender privilege” checklists out there, none of which I agree entirely with, but patterns are clear and undeniable: trans people as a group face unique sets of violence, discrimination, and marginalization, even if not all trans people experience all of them, or some cis people experience some of them as well.

I’m sure you’ve seen the lists, but if you haven’t, here are the “lists” that came up on a quick search:

Privilege “checklists” have been challenged by those who wish to deny their privilege ever since Peggy McIntosh’s original “Invisible Knapsack” article came out. Any given item in the “list” may not apply to all people who belong to the privileged group, or even apply to some people who aren’t supposed to have the privilege, but that does not diminish the concept of privilege itself, whether it is male privilege, white privilege, or, yes, cis privilege.

How do women, who are disadvantaged by their sex and gender, oppress trans people with power they don’t have? Because it isn’t like race or ability, which you draw parallels to, because white people are not discriminated against on the basis of skin color and abled people are not discriminated against on the basis of their abled-ness in the way that women are discriminated against for being “cis”–that is, being female.

Cis women can have power over trans people in the same way white women can have power over people of color. But more importantly, I think the notion of “privilege” as a totalizing, all-or-nothing experience is faulty. People with different levels (or kinds) of able-bodiedness can have different level (or kind) of access to privilege, so not all people who have disability are equally oppressed or privileged. Similarly, different people of color have different level of access to white privilege depending on their socially determined access to whiteness (which, again, is not a natural category, but a socially constructed knowledge about racial differences).

In her classic work “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Andrea Smith analyzes three different “logics” that impact various communities of color differently and yet together uphold the white supremacy in the United States. According to her, three pillars of white supremacy are: the logic of slavery, which anchors capitalism by commodifying Black people as slaves, prison laborers, etc., and by extension commodifies all workers; the logic of genocide, which anchors colonialism by vanishing indigenous people both in social reality and in imagination in order to claim the land and culture that do not belong to the white supremacy; and the logic of Orientalism, which anchors war and anti-terror or anti-immigrant policies by treating Latinos, Asians, Arabs, and other people as foreign threat and invasion.

It is not helpful to assume that all people of color are oppressed (and not privileged) by the white supremacy in the same way, or that someone who is not targeted by a particular logic of the white supremacy in a particular way are therefore white. The system that is white supremacy requires all three to operate in concert, so in order to fight the white supremacy we need to address specific ways each community is targeted.

Would it be a stretch to think that patriarchy is also a conglomerate of various different logics? Misogyny, heterosexism, and cissexism can be understood as components of what we call patriarchy, or sometimes “gender,” but each impact different communities in unique ways (which, by the way, is not to say that they don’t also overlap, for example when someone is a gay and woman = lesbian).

I am Asian, which means that I have some access to white privilege where anti-Black racism (the logic of slavery) or settler colonialism (the logic of genocide) is in operation. That does not mean that I do not experience racism, or that I have white privilege the same way white people do. Similarly, a cis woman, or a straight woman can have some access to gender privilege, even though at the same time oppressed for being a woman.

I am not interested in “drawing the line” as to how much access is enough to categorize someone as being on the privileged “side” of the oppression, because I do not think of privilege as having just two sides. What I am attempting to do is to articulate a coherent and consistent understanding of cis privilege that is compatible with existing thinking around other forms of privilege.

(An earlier edit of this article has been posted on my Tumblr page.)

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

Date: September 20, 2013

In preparation for the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo next week, I created a new handout! Please feel free to share this page, or download the PDF version for distribution.

Also, please take a look at my other handout on the topic, Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist, which is also available as a PDF file.

Instruction for printing the PDF file: print both pages back to back in “calendar style.” Cut the paper horizontally to make two copies from one sheet of paper.

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

written by emi koyama (
version 1.0 (last updated 09/20/2013)

1. Most “rescued” youth are 16-17 year old. While media and politicians often sensationalize very young victims who are 13 year old or younger, they are outliers. The misperception of unrealistically low average age is harmful because it misdirects necessary policy responses.

2. “Rescue” actually means arrest and involuntary detainment of minor “victims” by the police in many cases. Some jurisdictions have passed “safe harbor” laws that abolished prostitution charges against minors, but young people are still being arrested under some other criminal charge, and are then sent to detention, child welfare system, or back to home.

3. Many “rescued” youth have experienced child welfare system before starting to trade sex. Many have ran away from foster family or group home, and do not feel that going back to the system that have failed them already is a solution to problems in their lives. When they are forcibly returned to these institutions, many run away again as soon as they can.

4. There are “push” and “pull” factors that contribute to the presence of youth sex trade. “Push” factors are things that make young people vulnerable, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of child welfare system, and the breakdown of families due to incarceration and deportation; “pull” factors are things that lure youth into the sex trade, such as the existence of the commercial sex market itself and its facilitators (buyers, online classified sites, etc.). Anti-trafficking policies such as “rescues” place exclusive focus on the “pull” side of the equation while neglecting to address the vulnerabilities created by the “push” side.

5. Without policies that truly address the “push” factors, any reduction in the “pull” side, such as lower demand for commercial sex due to more policing, or closure of online classified sites, only functions to impoverish youth further, making them more vulnerable overall rather than less. Street youth still need to survive, and thus still have to find different ways to do so, most likely doing things that are also criminalized.

6. Street youth are routinely harassed and mistreated by the law enforcement, and do not view the police as their protector. Social service agencies that work closely with the law enforcement’s campaign to “rescue” youth lose the trust of the people who need to access the services. Any public response to youth sex trade must start from the acknowledgment that the law enforcement is one of the primary sources of violence in the lives of street youth, and cannot be relied upon to provide the solution.

7. Youth in the sex trade eventually become adults. Because the society focuses on “rescues” instead of providing resources and opportunities that would improve their long-term well-being, many youth are left unable to pursue economic opportunities outside of the underground economy, and will be treated simply as criminals once they are 18.

8. “Rescue” operations result in the mass arrest and criminalization of adult women in the sex trade, many of whom would have been identified as underage “victims” several years earlier but are now treated as criminals. Many adult women (as well as teen girls) arrested during “rescue” operations are mothers, and their children may be taken away and placed in the child welfare system as a consequence of their arrest.

9. Individuals arrested as “pimps” during “rescue” operations are not necessarily abusers, traffickers, or exploiters; in fact, many are friends, family members, partners, etc. who happen to provide room, transportation, mentoring, security, and other assistance to people in the sex trade, or are financially supported by them, even though they are not abusing, coercing, exploiting, or otherwise hurting that person. Sometimes, women are arrested as “pimps” for working in pairs to increase their safety. Indiscriminate arrests of friends and others as “pimps” when they are not abusers, traffickers, or exploiters lead to further isolation of people who trade sex, putting them at greater risks.

10. Street youth need housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and other resources and opportunities. Being thrown in jail or detention does not provide them, nor does being sent back to families or institutions that they had run away from in the first place. Youth in the sex trade deserve our support, and must be given a voice in determining how the society can best support them!

Please send your feedback to!

h/t Claudine O’Leary, founder of Young Women’s Empowerment Project, for the phrase “rescue is for kittens.”

Rescue is for Kittens cover

“Cis” is real—even if it is carelessly articulated.

Date: September 9, 2013

The term “cis” (usually denoting people and things that are not transgender or transsexual) has gained popularity among queer subcultures since the publication of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano in 2007. In the book, Serano cites my old post to WMST-L (Women’s Studies mailing list) as the place she encountered the word, so I feel I played some part in popularizing the term.

In casual conversations, it is suffice to say that “cis” means the opposite of “trans,” replacing “normal,” “natural,” “biological,” “genetic,” “real,” and many other words that are often used in the mainstream society to describe someone who is not trans. As I explained back in 2002, the reason “cis” is preferable to all the others is that it treats “cis” and “trans” as linguistic equivalents, rather than treating one as more normal or natural or otherwise standard and the other abnormal, artificial or exceptional. I wrote:

I learned the words “cissexual,” “cissexist,” and “cisgender,” from trans activists who wanted to turn the table and define the words that describe non-transsexuals and non-transgenders rather than always being defined and described by them. By using the term “cissexual” and “cisgender,” they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the “norm” against which trans people are defined.

As the term became popular, I started seeing it being included and defined in many “terminology” sheets and other documents. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable defining “trans” as “not cis,” and “cis” as “not trans,” but other people often try to offer a more helpful sets of definitions–and this is where the problem begins. For example, Wikipedia states:

Cisgender and cissexual (often abbreviated to simply cis) describe related types of gender identity where an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity,” complementing transgender.

Some anti-trans radical feminists have rejected the term “cis,” along with pretty much everything else trans movement has produced so far, but in this particular case they have a good point. That is, gender in a patriarchal society is an oppressive institution created and imposed (at least in part) to subjugate women, and as such no woman (or probably other people) can be described as having a natural “match” between her gender and the assigned sex. Many “cis” women are indeed not comfortable with the gendered expectations and treatment that are imposed on them because of their assigned sex: indeed, that is one of the reasons many women become feminists, especially radical feminists. Women do not need to suffer from “Gender Dysphoria” (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) to feel dysphoric about gender.

I am sympathetic to this argument, to a point, but I feel that the problem is not the concept of “cis” itself, but how badly it is defined. I agree that many “cis” women (and others) don’t feel that the socially imposed gender “matches” their assigned sex–or understand what “match” even means in this context–and yet, cis people (and cis women) exist. Cis privileges exist.

The problem is how the word “cis” is often defined as if it is a natural category, definable outside the context of cissexist power relations, rather than a socially constructed one. Like whiteness or able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be understood as a historical and political category of power and privilege, with boundaries that are blurry and constantly shifting.

That might not make sense, because many people tend to think of whiteness or able-bodiedness as natural categories as well, but those of us who study the history of racism or ableism understand these categories as socially constructed. In the last several centuries, for example, many groups of people from Europe–Italians, Irish, and most recently, Ashkenazi Jews–have come to be accepted as “whites” in the U.S., even though historically they were regarded as something else. There are some people who predict that Asians and Latinos will eventually join “whites” in the U.S. in the not so distant future (remember, Jews weren’t white until mid-20th century)–which is kind of a scary thought to me, considering that I might live all of my life as an Asian person, only to die as a white person.

Able-bodiedness operates similarly: disability theorists have adopted a “social model of disability, which distinguishes between “impairments” that are physical or mental differences and “disabilities” that are social meaning of these differences created by lack of universal accessibility. Historical changes such as policies promoting accessibility and uses of adaptive technologies have reduced or in some cases eliminated difficulties someone might experience due to their physical or mental differences.

Like whiteness and able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be treated as a socially constructed category of power and privilege. In my view, a “cis” person is not (necessarily) someone whose gender matches her or his assigned sex, or someone who does not suffer from “Gender Dysphoria”; it should denote someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis.

Obviously, there are grey areas along the boundaries of this category. Some butch women and effeminate men might be frequently targeted by transphobia without being trans, or some trans person might pass well enough to not experience transphobia in their daily lives. Similar grey areas also exist along the boundaries of whiteness and able-bodiedness (mistaken identities and “passing” can and do happen), but that does not diminish the usefulness of these categories to discuss socially imposed structures of power and privilege. It might also be true that butch women do experience some aspects of transphobia, but in a much different way than a trans person would: for example, butch women can usually produce an identification card with an “F” printed on it and expect everybody to accept it.

Just to be clear: When I say “transphobia,” I am not merely talking about someone using a wrong pronoun. I am talking about violence, discrimination, and social abandonment that take many trans lives. If we lived in a society where these tragedies did not exist, I could care less that people are using wrong pronouns. Cis is real, and cis privileges really do exist–even if they are often not articulated properly or thoughtfully. Do not let cis people get away with denying their privilege by nitpicking specific (arguably bad) definitions of the concept as if the concept itself has no substance.