Photo by Westend61

The body of a weak and feeble woman?

We need to talk about female physical disadvantage

Artillery Row

In her 2016 novel The Power, Naomi Alderman depicts a world in which women are able to dominate men physically. Thanks to a sudden ability to transmit electrical jolts through their fingers, women become the powerful sex, thereby reversing social hierarchies across the globe. 

The book was a bestseller, and it’s easy to see why. When feminist progress is slow, and the threat of male violence seems intractable, the thought of such an instant reversal is intoxicating. I would love “the power”, if only for a day, even if I were never to actively use it. Where would I go? What would I do? Which spaces could I enter without fear, and whose compliance would I obtain, not even by asking, but just with a look? 

The Power articulated something that many feminists do not like to talk about: the fact that women are weaker than men in terms of our capacity to commit acts of physical and sexual violence. We might talk about toxic masculinity and male socialisation, but rarely do we like to mention the way in which these interact with actual physical advantage. By creating a context in which women were not confronted directly with female weakness, The Power provided an acceptable way of reflecting on it. Back in the real world, it is considered shameful to acknowledge. 

My male partner sometimes opens jars for me, too

I understand why this is. Having grown up in the era of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, I am conscious of the risk of conceding that there are any innate differences between male and female people. All too often, this descends into an endorsement of socially constructed, implicitly hierarchical “natural roles”

Witness, for instance, the right-wing commentator Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a woman? , in which Walsh suggests that his own view of the world — pink dresses and domesticity for the girls, guns and dominance for the boys — is the only alternative to complete denial of sex difference. The film ends with a scene in which Walsh has to open a jar for his wife, with the implication being “ha, feminists! Not so equal now!” 

My male partner sometimes opens jars for me, too. This is because I have smaller hands and an average 41 per cent lower grip strength than him, not because I should never have been allowed the vote. Yet trying to distinguish between the two — which is not in fact difficult — has come to be seen as dangerous. There are many who would rather pretend that my jar-opening skills would be on a par with my partner’s were it not for a combination of female socialisation and a confected feminine weakness that I like to play up in order to make him feel important. 

This might sound silly, but it is a serious problem for feminism, and for women in general. The backlash against feminist gains is so powerful right now because many of us have painted ourselves into a corner. We are incapable of explaining the way in which female physical difference interacts with female needs. 

We’re meant to pretend women have no specific physical vulnerabilities when it comes to making sexual choices, or taking part in sports, or living in enclosed spaces. Should we fail to do so, there are always men on hand, usually calling themselves feminist allies, who will swoop in to tell us that we are in fact “the patriarchy” because we see women as “weak and inferior”. This is an act of trolling. 

I do not think for one second that these men are in any doubt as to who would be best at strangling whom, whether in a dark alleyway, a public toilet or a private dwelling. They are asking us to concede that if women are to be treated as equal human beings — morally, socially, intellectually — it must be based on a lie about who we really are. This is no basis for equality at all. 

“In the modern West,” writes Louise Perry in The Case against the Sexual Revolution, “it has become increasingly possible to become detached from the sexually dimorphic body when one does not do a manual job, compete in sports or bear children.”

“But an unwelcome truth will always remain, whether or not we can bear to look at it: almost all men can kill almost all women with their bare hands, but not vice versa. And that matters.”

We might acknowledge this truth when we’re reading The Power; we might even acknowledge it when discussing ways in which women have to restrict their own freedoms (for instance, when walking alone at night). Acknowledging it has become taboo when a legitimate response might be the creation of spaces and resources which exclude male people. Then, we’re suddenly faced with a barrage of non-arguments about physical outliers and performative vulnerability — as though men’s superior upper body strength were something we’ve invented just to be mean, or female weakness were feminine performance, a fantasy that we wish to deny others who might enjoy playing the damsel, too. 

Female vulnerability is not a fetish

One of the most frustrating aspects of this denialism is the way in which it has become embedded in contemporary social justice narratives. The prioritisation of socially constructed differences — far more sophisticated than boring old physical ones — has led to a complete misrepresentation of the difficulties all women face due male violence. It is not just that the fears of “privileged” women are dismissed in scenarios when those they fear are considered “less privileged” (cis women “pose a threat” to trans women, claims Rebecca Solnit, ludicrously). Expressing fear of male violence is increasingly considered a way of positioning oneself as refined and delicate, a way of “weaponising” one’s fragility, whilst characterising male people — many of whom will meet at least one criterion for social disadvantage — as brutish aggressors. Women who state the obvious about the risk male people pose to female people — regardless of their relative positions on other social hierarchies — are seen to be play-acting victimhood in order to bully those with less power. 

I can’t recall the exact size of the stranger who assaulted me, nor do I know his socio-economic class or gender identity. I know he was white, male and not particularly tall or well-built. I also know that his strength overwhelmed me. My failure to fight back was not a performance of fragile femininity, or down to some long-term socialisation which prevented me from believing I could be strong. I had my keys in my hand, the way you do. Until that moment, I had imagined myself slashing any would-be assailant across the face, metal digging deep into his skin. This was the fantasy, the delusion that I could take control. Female vulnerability is not a fetish. It’s not something women get off on, or use to score points over the “more marginalised”. I am tired of seeing it treated this way. 

Acknowledging the truth of female physical difference is frightening. What if, once you shatter the illusion of parity, all those men who’ve been pretending you’re the same as them stop trying? What if they go all-out, Matt Walsh-style, and start behaving as though being best at opening jars and killing people seals the deal on male physical superiority? After all, how can reproducing the entire human race, being better at not dying in infancy, and having a longer life expectancy ever compete?

It can feel as though men might just laugh and say, “what are you going to do about it?” The fact is, they’re doing that anyway. Liberation movements which depend on the maintenance of untruths about the human body are unsustainable. We must rely on the moral case for an end to male violence against women, even if it is less appealing than The Power-style wishful thinking. 

Men who tell you you’re equal on the basis that you’re just as physically strong as them do not, in fact, think you are equal. They want you to accept a world that does not restrict male behaviour or accommodate female difference. Saying “yes” to this is an act of moral and intellectual weakness. Saying “no” is strong. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover