"Equality" is a more loaded term than we give it credit for, especially when it comes to Swedes and urinals.
If you want to waste an afternoon in one of the most stultifying ways possible, listen to a communist and a libertarian argue about the notions of “fairness” and “equality.” If they’re typical representatives of their ideologies, the communist will define equality as everyone getting more or less the same amount of stuff, whereas the libertarian will define it as no one being prevented from getting as much stuff as they can acquire through her talent and ambition. The communist will call the libertarian hard-hearted, the libertarian will accuse the communist of supporting totalitarianism, and the debate will probably end in a fistfight or a spirited round of hate-fucking.
I bring this up because everyone wants “equality,” and it’s a more loaded term than we usually give it credit for, especially when you say stuff like, “I’m in favor of equality between men and women.” For most American feminists, this has meant supporting women’s right to vote, equal pay for equal work, and giving women the same opportunities to go to school and enter the same professional fields and not get sexually harassed and objectified and talked down to all the fucking time. (Pretty simple stuff, right? Or at least you’d think so….) For Swedish feminists, however, “equality” means “refusing to acknowledge that, generally, some people have penises and other people have vaginas.”
I’m not exaggerating. Vänsterpartiet, a political party known for being socialist and feminist, recently announced support of a measure that would ban urinals. Proponents of the ban argue that it’s more hygienic and healthy to pee sitting down, but it’s pretty easy to see this as an extension of efforts to not just make the sexes equal and eliminate harmful stereotypes, but to ban notions of gender altogether by any means necessary, even if those means are incredibly silly.
Last year, there was Egalia, the preschool that banned gendered terms in an effort to turn children into “friends” rather than boys and girls. Then came hen, a new gender-neutral pronoun that would liberate Swedes from the (apparent) oppression of having to choose between the two traditional genders. (Other efforts in this same vein include introducing gender-neutral bathrooms.) Then there’s the campaign to get men to close their legs on the bus, because it’s too intimidating to simply ask individual men to scoot over when they need to.
If you are one of those “men’s rights” assholes (they exist, and hang out on Reddit), you could probably write a semi-comprehensible 5,000-word rant on how Swedish feminists want to “castrate” men, but I doubt Vänsterpartiet and the gender-equality activists are motivated by some pathological hatred of men. I take them at their word when they say they’re striving for equality between the genders—males, females, and whatever other genders are out there now, or will appear in the future. If you want to defend some of the more absurd parts of the Swedish feminist movement, you can say they’re looking towards a future where there are dozens, or hundreds, of genders; in that world, having one catchall pronoun is going to be quite useful.
Except we’re not in that world. The number of people who aren’t men or women—as far as I know—is extremely small, and meanwhile there are more mundane battles to be fought. For instance, before you confront the dastardly men who take up slightly too much space on public transportation, you might want to deal with how insane your country gets over a single glimpse of armpit hair on a woman. And as long as we’re on the topic of sensitivity, perhaps Swedish progressives should also find a way to protest genital mutilation without being shockingly racist. When we talked to Swedes about the word hen, many of them described the debate as “silly,” and literally arguing over semantics does seem sillier than dealing with real issues of gender discrimination.
The not-so-silly questions at the heart of banning pronouns or peeing standing up is how much freedom we want to sacrifice for the sake of equality, and whether true equality is possible between groups who are different. And like it or not, there are biological differences between women and men—even if you banned skirts and other “gendered” clothes, even if you forbade anyone from mentioning penises and vaginas in public, you’d still have some people with uteruses and some people without. But it’s tricky to separate the harmful, socially-constructed differences between the sexes and the differences that we’re going to have to resort to hardcore genetic engineering to change. It’s much easier to make up words and force men to sit down to pee.
Previously - Legislating Love