the relative privileges of the penisless*

*The following was originally posted on July 6, 2006. I feel like the lovely Kate Bornstein has been popping up all over the place recently, and I think she rocks. I do, however, have a bit of critique for some of her work…


For my book club, Tip of the Page, I recently read My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein. Well, OK, I read part of it – not having had the time or energy lately to get my shit together and read the whole thing, interesting though the book certainly is. I do plan to finish the whole thing eventually, mind you, because the first 79 pages were pretty great – though you have to be down with Kate’s very chatty writing style, which I’ll admit drove me nuts when I first picked it up a few years ago because it struck me as so bloody condescending. But then I met her when she came to speak at McGill a couple of years ago, and realized that in fact the tone in her book mirrored her tone in person, and that she’s not at all condescending, just really perky and chatty. That made it much easier to get through the book (so far at least).

Anyway, one of the things I like best about My Gender Workbook is the quizzes. Y’know, like Cosmo “What Kind of Man Is Right for You?” quizzes, only queered up something fierce. In the chapter entitled “Who’s On Top?” (and yes, that’s a not-so-thinly-veiled SM joke, Kate being a kinkster), she includes a fifteen-page quiz (!) to help you figure out how close you are to being The Perfect Gender.

It’s really quite ingenious. She starts out with a section entitled “Penises.” If you have one, you get 250 points. If you don’t, you get zero. There are questions about body size, physical health, mental health, race, ability, and all sorts of other things; gender presentation and “passability”; religion and culture; relationships and sexual orientation; political views; and then this huge section entitled “Sense of Self,” which seems to be a euphemism for “entitlement,” in that most of the questions are some variation on “how much entitlement do you walk around with on a daily basis?” Very sharp indeed.

Of course, taking this quiz was intriguing. It felt, to me, like she was trying to give people a sense of their own privilege – and it’s really fucking hard to make people aware of their privilege in ways that don’t alienate them. (Kudos to all the many people who’ve helped me figure out at least some of my own in ways that were gentle and kind.) So I was impressed at the effort.

Then it came time to score. The maximum number of points is 1500, at which she considers you to be of The Perfect Gender. So I tallied up my score and it was… 499.

To explain: zero to 549 is the bottom category of the five categories she’s set up. The blurb next to my score reads, “Heh, heh. You’re weird. You know you are, so why’d you take the test? Oh, I know: you take pride in what the culture persists in calling your flaws and imperfections, no? My kind of outlaw!”


Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Kate is great, and I applaud the work she’s done in many many spheres. It feels all nice and warm and fuzzy to know that, in theory at least, she’d consider me to be her kind of anything. I also acknowledge that she provides a disclaimer along with the quiz, which reads: “Okay, so the scores are totally arbitrary. Right. So’s the rest of the culture. So are the ideas of real men and women. So’s gender in general. So there.” I get it, I get it – this is one way among many to do the work of unpacking privilege and no one way will get it all right.

But still. 499? I’m on the very bottom? Whadafuck? I hate to break it to you, Kate, but I have waaaay more privilege than 499 points’ worth. Sure, I’m kinky and non-monogamous and I play with genderfuck (and am in many ways genderfucked myself) and I’ve got some arguably radical political views (depending on whose point of view you’re coming from) and I’m queer and I’m female and I’m not Christian and I’m not a parent and I’m not in the country’s top income bracket. Okay, I get it, on the privilege scale I have some stuff counting against me.

But crikey, I’m also white – which must, must, must count for more than the ten points it’s allotted, especially if having a penis counts for 250. Come on, honey – that’s hardly a fair assessment of how much my whiteness gives me in this world.

Same thing with my lack of any mental and physical disorders (unless you count needing glasses, which is kinda banal nowadays). Puh-leeze – do you really think the difference in privilege between someone who’s, say, a paraplegic and someone who’s in near perfect physical health amounts to ten points in a 1500-point quiz?

And same thing with my class privilege – I highly doubt the difference between being middle-to-upper class, working class and “other” is a ten-pointer on the grand scale of privilege. Sure, I’m penisless, but I’ve had the privilege of moving through my entire life with the ability to take it relatively for granted that I’d make a decent living and be in a profession where people respected me. This isn’t to say I’ve never been poor; there was a period of five or six years when I could hardly afford to eat. Trust me – after donating a few pennies a week to the elves at school one year, it very much threw me for a loop to get a cheque in the mail from the John Abbott Christmas Fund, and it was even more humbling that I actually needed it to buy my groceries. But, as I articulated in a recent workshop I took, that was middle-class Andrea having a temporary poverty problem, not working-class Andrea having a particularly rough holiday season one year within a lifetime of rough holiday seasons. There’s a major fucking difference between class and income bracket, and I never stopped being middle-class even when I was scraping by on minimum wage, coupons and hand-me downs.

And on top of all this, I’m educated, English-speaking, professional; I live in North America, I own my own business, I’m generally considered to be of an acceptable body type and size, etc., etc. I mean, I’m wallowing in privilege in so many ways that if I hadn’t realized years ago that guilt was not an advantageous political strategy, I’d be gnawing myself out from the inside from the sheer self-hatred of having so much of my identity resting on its laurels in categories that make my life shockingly easy compared to so many people in this world.

And Kate wants to reduce all of that combined to a fraction of the value of a penis on the privilege-metre? Oy. It’s pleasantly unchallenging, but I’m just not sure I want to feel pleasant about this.

Okay. So this was a quiz about whether or not you’re the perfect gender, not whether or not you’re the perfect human being. Fair enough. But I don’t know if it’s really possible to pick apart gender privilege from all the other sorts of privilege out there. Or rather, if you do, it’s simply giving a skewed picture of what privilege is like.

For example, I don’t experience my lack of privilege as a woman as being separable from my lack of privilege as a queer. Sure, there are some circumstances in which one of them is the more prevalent cause of a bad experience, but they’re still happening to me. If I get harassed one day on the street because I’m a woman and some dude thinks it’s his right to comment on my body (whether it pleases or displeases him is reasonably irrelevant), and the next day I get harassed on the street because I’m holding hands with another woman and some dude thinks it’s his right to comment on my choice of partners, how are those things dissociable? I’m not a woman one day and a dyke the next – I am always both of those things, and many more, and they all factor into how people approach me, even if one is on top at a given moment.

And on the flipside, if I apply for a job and I get that job, and a whole bunch of other people don’t get that job because they have the wrong accent or the wrong skin colour or the wrong “look” or the wrong gender presentation, I’m not experiencing my own privilege in a separable list of four or five things – I simply got the job. Or the apartment, or the test score, or the right to walk into a store without being followed by a security agent. Once again – how are these things dissociable?

I’m not saying privilege doesn’t break down into identifiable pieces; sometimes it does, and certainly it’s politically wise to be able to articulate the ways that various sorts of privilege are different and play out differently. But you can’t just take them apart and ignore the rest, or ignore the systems in which they all operate incestuously.

I understand that Kate needed to focus on gender for her book, but I still feel icky thinking that by her test standards I’m comfortably resting at the bottom of a privilege scale where everyone should feel a combination of pity and admiration for me (“you poor outcast, you’re so strong!”) when in fact I wield an enormous amount of power and privilege in my everyday life. I don’t feel I belong on the bottom here; somehow that would minimize all the people who have far more claim to that space than I ever will, and to equate their struggles with mine not only makes me personally uncomfortable, but falsely places us in a position of equality where there isn’t any.

Which, of course, is the problem in the first place – that lack of equality, and the many faces of oppression. Gender is only one of them, and I don’t think you can scale that up higher than the rest.

4 thoughts on “the relative privileges of the penisless*

  1. No Kidding! I belong to at least six marginalized groups. Yet I very rarely encounter overt discrimination or bias. Somehow it is prevented by my being educated, white, urban, high-income, and a native English-speaker.

    My theory: in our society, someone with enough privilege is allowed to “experiment” with non-mainstream religion or sexuality. Amongst other educated middle-class people, these are perceived as choices that make the person more interesting, just like the conceit of my blue hair.

    Whereas someone with low education, income and language skills would probably not have the resources to be actively or visibly poly, kinky, pagan or trans. And they’ll be spending more time amongst people with less liberal education, thus encountering more discrimination against their sex, skin colour, religion, ethnicity, body size, disabilities, queerness or gender nonconformity.

    BTW I’m not sure how much being “white” contributes to your or my privilege. My theory is that good language skills and education can overcome a lot of discrimination.

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