Twitter’s Cleaner Wars: The Conspicuous Absence of Male Labour

Men opining on the morality of relying on a cleaner during lockdown gloss over their own failures in the sphere of domestic responsibilities.

Twitter has been recently aflame with ‘debate’ (slingshots, mud, and arrows) over whether it is morally superior during the UK confinement period to pay ones cleaner without them cleaning your home, or have them still visit your home to clean it in return for payment.

This unwinding ‘debate’ has centrally focused on lambasting and ridiculing women who outsource their cleaning to another woman for financial remuneration (almost all cleaners are women, whether professional, or unpaid mothers, wives, and girlfriends) feeling they still need extra help during lockdown. Who is invisible within this arrangement? Ah, the group who has somehow avoided criticism in this discussion to the degree they avoid household responsibilities: men. For every woman cleaning there is a man who quietly or loudly refuses. Men inside the home tend to contribute infrequently, meaning some women sometimes outsource some of the housework men leave them to do, to another woman instead.

To reiterate: almost all the domestic work that professional cleaners do is because a man somewhere chose to not share an equal burden of household chores. Men are somehow magically above household servitude, which is why almost no one ever brings up male reluctance to get their hands dirty. Men’s convenient invisibility cloak strikes again, though they somehow as an online group form a noticeable collective presence to criticise women for outsourcing cleaning to other women (I wonder how many of these blokes pay their mothers, wives, and girlfriends, for bleaching the toilet and doing the washing up? Didn’t think so). Women’s service and sacrifice inside the family home is natural and unquestionable. Any alternative is unthinkable and as we can see from Twitter, almost unspeakable.

For most women domestication is a shock. To discover the boyfriend who called himself a queer feminist once a father and husband burdens you with childcare and floor scrubbing. The unhappy isolation scores of women experience in early motherhood is because they are quite literally left alone holding the baby by their male partners. Often hiring a cleaner, or child minder, is the only way mothers get a few hours genuinely to themselves each week. The men joining this debate show zero understanding of the unending housework and childcare responsibilities imposed on women – and it is in their interest to display lack of comprehension – these same men almost certainly impose it themselves on female relatives. It is not really a lack of understanding, but total disregard and inability to empathise with anyone who isn’t male.

Outsourcing domestic labour to other women isn’t a feminist ideal, but given men refuse to do their share what options are heterosexual women left with? Yes, I would prefer if women lived collectively, no longer existing in separate houses to one another, and refused to ever cook a meal for a man again, but that isn’t an immediately available option. And it definitely is not what ‘woke bros’ who crow at women for still hiring a cleaner during the coronavirus are suggesting. If those women left they would have to pick up their own socks.

The men who pretend this is about economic class warfare do so to hide the exploitative sexual politics of the family home and that it was a woman who cleaned up after them as a child. That reality is never recognised, and so motherhood remains a uniquely thankless task, with the thought of paying mothers back for it out of their own pockets inconceivable. Yet, women are attacked for paying other women to do the work men refuse to pay us for. Women who can afford £15 a week for a cleaner – the price of a packet of cigarettes – are not necessarily ladies who lunch.

What is required is not moralising at individual women, but a materialist structural approach that exposes how women’s oppression is organised – turning women into domestic servants is just one part. A structural analysis does not mean moralising at individuals in aggregate and then calling it structural i.e “here is why straight / white (shuffle the deck, select prefix) women are awful”. It means looking at the system as a whole and no longer absolving half the population within it (hello fellas!) when it comes to the domestic sphere. Research shows that single mothers do less housework, have more leisure time, and get more sleep than women with male partners, so it is not only children women are cleaning up the mess of. Work and responsibilities in the home have only grown worse for women due to the new measures enclosing us all more indoors. Before we get to the explosion of domestic violence now our worlds stop at the front door. Killings of women by men have doubled and yet we are still reticent about acknowledging the sexual politics of who has power in home life.

In any case, if women cleaners were providing blowjobs to the men in these households, the likes of Owen Jones (who took any chance during the Twitter spat to be snide towards women who dare disagree with him) would of course defend those cleaners inalienable right to provide ‘sexual services’ for cash. Or would he expect men to pay those women without receiving blowjobs? How kind. I wonder which impoverished women Saint Jones is donating to so they need not prostitute themselves during this period of confinement and risk inadvertently catching the virus? Please get in touch if Owen has saved you from sexual exploitation and COVID-19! I won’t hold my breath.

Can we recognise the common denominator who is absolved yet again? Men. Men’s right not to clean, or men’s right to sex, or men’s right to frame the debate and write themselves out of any responsibility in it.

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