Is gender inherently oppressive?

In the founding principles of this blog, I wrote that I want to help build a world where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. While that is undoubtedly easier said than done, it always struck me as a rather uncontroversial ambition. Who could disagree?

I appreciate that the debates around the nature of gender vis-a-vis sex, essentialism, binaries and spectrums are immensely difficult and opaque. Alex Gabriel ran an excellent blog this week spelling out why even the simplistic separations of male against female or biology against social construction are often inadequate or misleading. I don’t intend to delve into any of that, when others can explain it much better than I could.

One thing that has become apparent from recent ideological wrangles within feminism is that there is a significant bloc for whom the problem is not gender discrimination, gender inequality or gender-based oppression, but gender itself. It’s an argument that was laid out with unusual clarity by the feminist blogger Marina S this week. It seemed worth exploring just why I disagree with her so strongly. Her piece, entitled ‘What gender is and what gender isn’t‘ begins with a claim that had me screaming NO!

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

She expands on the point with respect to sexual libido and career choices, but the premise is the same. Gender, she argues, is not a politically neutral identity or psychological and social trait that has been exploited to create arbitrary and artificial divisions.Gender is inherently hierarchical and oppressive, and is an assignation from which violence and economic exploitation inevitably flows. The goal of feminism, then, must not be just the elimination of gender inequality or gender oppression, but that abolition of gender itself.

The consequences of this thinking are profound. The most obvious victims are trans people whose very existence is of course denied by this logic. I don’t think it is a very subtle political model either. It would preclude hegemonic power dynamics that oppress men and boys in parallel to those oppressing women and girls. At a more trivial and superficial level, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly desirable utopia. I like living in a world of diversity and a society with a broad spectrum of gender, like a spectrum of sexuality, ideology, physicality, psychology and ideology feels healthier to me than a monoculture. I don’t want to live in a world of the gender equivalent of the Mao suit.

For all that, if Marina is right that gender is inherently and inevitably oppressive, it would be something that should profoundly influence our gender politics. So while I don’t want it to be true, could she be right?

At the heart of her blog is a long analogy to slavery. She is saying that just as skin colour was arbitrarily made into a delineator between slave-class and slave-owning class; so was binary biological sex made into a delineator between dominant class and subordinate class.

It seems to me that this analogy already contains a significant counter-argument. While she is entirely right to say that social divisions of oppression are arbitrary, they invariably have some sort of rationale. So while there might have been a brief period of Greek history where (literally) anyone could be a slave and anyone a slave-owner, for the vast bulk of human history, there have been other arbitrary divisions as to who could or could not be a slave – a conquered enemy, a criminal, a member of another tribe, another religion, another race. All those distinctions are arbitrary. All are (at least partially) socially constructed. All are reified and made real within the social and political realm. If our culture has shed the assumption that it is reasonable to make someone a slave if they were born on the other side of the river or practice a different type of prayer, could we not similarly shed the assumptions of hierarchical power we attach to gender?

The real meat of the argument comes later. I can only address it by quoting it at length. It begins here:

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact.

(I agree)

The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other.


(I agree)

 However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.


WOAH, no, stop right there!

Who is saying that physical sex is not really real? Is anyone making that argument? From my understanding of post-Butler, post-structural feminism, the argument is 1/ That the absolute binary of sex is not really real – the idea that all the world’s population can be easily and accurately divided (by anyone) into ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a myth, and 2/ That people are oppressed on the basis of gender and that many (not all) of the dynamics of patriarchal oppression relate to gender (the collective social), not sex (the individual physicality).

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.


Is this true? I don’t see it. To take her analogy literally, I would aver that even those who claim not to see a binary of biological sex don’t go so far as insisting that therefore differences in sex don’t exist.

Sex exists. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

(I agree)

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.


Here’s my huge problem. I don’t think anyone is trying to theorise sex out of existence. However I do see people attempting to theorise gender out of existence, right here in front of me, and to theorise gender out of existence is to deny that gender oppression, including transphobia, can exist. It is to refuse to accept that trans people exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly surgically transformed, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. And all the rest of it.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a – relatively minor – entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

I ask again, who is saying women do not exist? I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen many people deny that trans people exist, who insist they are delusional, insane or sexual fetishists. Those hateful charges do not spring from thin air, but from an ideological well in which gender has been wished away and we are defined purely by the categorisation of our bodies.

After all this, I am still genuinely trying to understand why it should be that gender is inherently oppressive. I don’t see it. Marina argues well that to deny the existence of womanhood would be oppressive, but nobody is denying the existence of womanhood. At most, they are claiming that womanhood is not necessarily restricted to biological essentialism. Is womanhood somehow degraded or nullified by the inclusion of trans women? I’ve seen that argument made in its bigoted glory elsewhere, but I don’t think it is the case being made here and nor, I think, is it especially compelling.

For what it is worth, my hunch remains that gender, sex and sexuality continue to circle around each other like the rings of a gyroscope – related, independent, often overlapping, sometimes far removed. The only time any of them becomes oppressive in itself is when we insist they must all align.

A history of ad hominem gender shaming

I blogged recently about my disdain for those who respond to any man writing favourably about women with the swipe “you’re only saying this in the hope of getting laid.”

Several respondents pointed out, quite correctly, that this is just one strand to a wide family of ad hominem attacks, all of which focus on the putative conscious or unconscious psychological motivations behind an expressed opinion.

It pops up in all political arenas (the phrase ‘the politics of envy’ is a classic example) but it seems especially prevalent in gender debates. Examples include dismissing feminists as being fat, ugly, sex-starved, bitter and jealous of more attractive women, or the precise mirror image – dismissing men’s activists as being sad, socially inadequate, resentful virgins who live in their mother’s basements.

It’s the kind of lazy thinking we all slip into occasionally – and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of blots on my own copybook, before you rush to point it out. Nonetheless it is an intellectually bankrupt, politically corrosive and degrading, and very often entirely untruthful approach to debating issues, whoever is responsible.

One might expect such cheap and nasty rhetorical tricks in the mucky trenches of the online gender wars. It is rather more surprising to find a prime example in an acclaimed, scholarly, academic history book.

My current light reading is a recent book by Ben Griffin entitled: The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. Yeah, I know, I’m a barrel of laughs at parties. Anyway, in many respects it is a fascinating work, exploring a really interesting idea that since each gender is largely defined in opposition and contrast to the other, the gradual emancipation of women and reinvention of femininity through the 19th Century was both a cause and consequence of a parallel and contemporaneous reconstruction of male gender roles. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Victorian conceptions of fatherhood and paternity. It is useful to be reminded just how fluid and transient such seemingly immutable attitudes prove to be.

But here’s the ‘but.’ One particular point of interest for Griffin, which appears sporadically through the book but also gets a whole chapter to itself, is an urge to psychologically profile the most vehement anti-suffrage members of the Victorian parliaments. These guys were, I am quite happy to concede, unbearably reactionary, misogynistic dinosaurs with an unedifying attachment to brute, traditional masculinity, the type of politician who, were they around today, I would doubtless be writing articles and blogs about – mocking and condemning their appalling opinions. I hope I would not fall into the trap which, with 150 years’ of distance, catches Griffin.

It is not enough to the author that these men were wrong, misguided by anachronistic ideology or religious beliefs. He feels the need to pathologise them like the history department’s answer to Fitz from Cracker. These men, Griffin alleges, doth (or didth) protest too much. Hence Sir Henry James was “a lifelong bachelor” with “an unusually close attachment to his mother.” He “exhibited a visible interest in cases of unusually close attachment between men.” He was, according to one rumour, the secret lover of Lord Randolph Churchill, but according to another, responsible for a full household of illegitimate children.

Meanwhile Charles Newdegate MP represented “a similar case of exaggerated filial piety…. indeed the relationship seems to have been exceptional in its intensity.” What’s more, “there is no surviving evidence of him having ever expressed any interest in women at all.”

On a slightly different tack, another ardent advocate of patriarchal supremacy was very much married. Alexander Beresford Hope MP opposed every reform of women’s civil and legal rights, but he had secrets of his own. At home, we are told, his most striking characteristic was his “absolute devotion to [his wife] and complete surrender of his will to hers, never opposing or thwarting any of her wishes but always thinking of and anticipating her views and desires.” You might think this makes him sound rather lovely (the original source was the MP’s daughter, after his death), but that is not how the author sees it. Instead it stands as evidence that Beresford Hope’s anti-feminism was a reaction to being a henpecked husband.

Summing up, the author argues:

“any interpretation of their speeches has to take into account the fact that the speeches were not simply statements of anti-suffragist belief; they were also efforts to create masculine identities. By entering the battle to oppose women’s suffrage these bachelor mummies’ boys presented themselves as hard-headed men of business or as chivalrous knights set on protecting the fairer sex. These were identities that served to compensate for the fact that these men fell far short of the masculine ideal, and as such we should not underestimate the attraction that entering the debate on women’s suffrage held for these tarnished defenders of the patriarchal order.”

My objections to all this are twofold. The first is based in social science and psychology. As the likes of Adorno and Eysenck pointed out more than 50 years ago, all political views are, to an extent, underpinned by personal cognitive processes and/or personality. All of our politics are to an extent shaped and influenced by our personal histories and our private lives. It is striking that this type of forensic diagnosis of political positions is only ever applied to people we disagree with, never to ourselves or those on our own side. Were there not MPs who supported suffrage who were submissive to their wives or quietly homosexual? Almost certainly, but Griffin doesn’t explain away their progressive views on that basis, although either would be an easy case to make. Once we start to go down that route, all debate and discussion quickly becomes reductive and ad hom.

The second problem I have with all this is, I think, a more serious matter. Griffin clearly considers himself to be a progressive type, his allegiances are overtly pro-feminist and his references are peppered with post-structural gender theory from R.W. Connell et al. For all that, I can’t help but find his analysis subtly but profoundly reactionary. The glee he seems to take in nudge-nudge innuendo that anti-suffrage MPs were secretly gay strikes me as more than a tad homophobic, and so too is the repeated conflation of ‘confirmed bachelor’ with ‘mummy’s boy.’ The passage about the henpecked MP seems to be shaming the man for being insufficiently dominant in his own home.

I realise I’m probably being harsh, but I can’t help reading Griffin as saying that if you don’t agree with his enlightened modern views on gender, there must be something wrong with you, and in the case of these MPs, what was wrong with them was that they were secretly gay, lacking in masculine, heterosexual independence, or excessively subordinate to women. Um, hello? Isn’t this just old heteronormative, patriarchal gender policing wrapped up with a new progressive ribbon?

Whether or not Griffin is guilty as charged, there is an unfortunate tendency, particularly among male feminists, to create new, feminist-friendly hierarchies of masculinity which (conveniently) place them at the top. However well intentioned, slogans like “real men don’t hit women” still reinforce the false notion that there is such a thing as a real man, an ideal man, against whom all others should be compared. I don’t think it is helpful.

The sad truth is that some real men do hit women (or other men), some don’t. Some real men are gay, some real men are homophobic. Some real men lean left politically and some to the right, some real men oppose women’s rights and others support them. That was true in the 1870s, it remains true today, and if we want to challenge the views of those we oppose, we need to take on their arguments, not their personal lives.  

Men, memes and misogyny

Last week the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland made one of his periodic forays into gender politics, sparked by the Liberal Democrats’ saga of sleaze, the latest Twitterstorms and a tacky plastic surgery game app.

I fully endorse the main message of the piece, that men should actively involve themselves in challenging and combatting misogyny and gender oppression. Beneath that I had several disagreements. I despise the ‘man-up’ cliche on which he concludes, especially when applied to the type of chivalrous protector role suggested here. This type of benevolent sexism seems to me very much part of the problem, not the solution. His suggestion that the forthcoming Southbank conference Being A Man should focus on what men can do to help women merely amplifies that.

At the heart of the piece is a section on the part played by women in propagating misogyny.

Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That’s adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It’s a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.

The notion of a ‘war against femaleness’ seems confused to me. Is he talking about the social construction of traditional female gender? If so, I’d say the opposite is happening – if there is a war here it is actually being waged on deviations from subordinate, compliant, superficial femininity. Or does he mean there is a war against women? That’s a familiar claim and one which I believe (just like the same claim about men) founders on its own hyperbole, to the extent that it becomes neither instructive nor functional.

What I really find intriguing in this section though is the way in which Jonathan seems to imply that misogyny is “imbibed” and expressed in ways that are fundamentally different for men and women. He’s not alone in this, a lot of feminist and pro-feminist writing makes the same assumption, that misogyny is something that is fundamentally owned by men, created by men, somehow essential to men, and when women join in it is as tourists, cheerleaders or bandwagon jumpers, rather than central co-instigators and participants.

I’m not convinced this is true. it makes more sense to me to think of men’s misogyny in the same way that Jonathan here describes women’s misogyny – that men have imbibed so much misogyny it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

While people of different genders are, of course, differently socialised, they are not raised on Mars and Venus. We all swim in the same ideological waters, breathe the same culture, absorb the same messages. Boys (in western liberal societies) are not raised with specific instructions to hate or fear women, rather both boys and girls are raised with almost identical messages about socially acceptable gender roles, about socially acceptable (and gender-specific) sexual behaviour, how nice girls behave, what it is to be a real man. Consequently boys too often grow into men that despise women who fail to meet exacting beauty standards, but so too do women. Women who depart from the script of demure, modest and restrained sexuality will be reviled as sluts or slags by women and men alike.

In that sense, misogyny is not something men do to women with an occasional female collaborators. It is an ambient dynamic in society, a collection of attitudes, beliefs and values that are passed down through generations and shared, gradually evolving to survive and thrive in new environments, whether changing workplaces and cultural loci or the new reality online. In other words, misogyny can be understood as a rather classic example of meme theory.

I appreciate that at this point some readers will be spluttering that I’m trying to get men off the hook for the oppression of women. With respect, I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that challenging misogyny and all forms of gender or other oppression will need to be a shared project.

I also consider this a rather more optimistic way of considering the issue. Analyses which describe misogyny as being somehow inherent or even essential to men or masculinity strike me as being ultimately disempowering. I refuse to accept that gendered hatred and oppression (of any flavour) is inevitable or invariable. If we consider misogynistic attitudes and values to be broadly memetic, then we accept that we can change our society in such a way that they will either wither and die or evolve beyond all recognition. I consider that a rather comforting thought.

Where’s the power? Some thoughts on Emer O’Toole’s feminist flowchart

I turned my back on the Guardian’s Comment is Free page for about five minutes on Thursday afternoon, and when I turned back around there was a piece by Emer O’Toole on men and feminism that had already reaped around 1300 comments.

I clicked, expecting some provocative outrage above the line and a savage feeding-frenzy below. It wasn’t really the case. The comments, by the standard of CIF feminism, included an unusually high proportion of interesting and astute points and constructive exchanges. The article itself centred on a flowchart designed to test whether or not a man (although I see no reason why it should be restricted to men) can be classified as a feminist or not.

Copyright  Emer O'Toole / The Guardian

Copyright Emer O’Toole / The Guardian

Although she’s too polite to say so, the post is really a demolition of the facile yet almost ubiquitous trope that goes “Do you believe men and women should be equal? Congratulations, you’re a feminist.” A lot of the controversy and dispute in the comments spiralled around a couple of points that I have made myself in the past and broadly agree with. The first is that feminism is (and should be) a woman’s movement, led by women, for women and with women’s rights, welfare and issues at its heart. Feminism is not a broader movement for social justice and equality of all sorts (including issues which primarily affects men). That’s not to say feminism cannot or should not sit alongside other social justice movements (including those which do focus on men) – simply that it is not feminism’s job.

The second point of agreement is that whether or not someone should be described as a feminist is not necessarily that big a deal.

You don’t have to be a feminist. There are plenty of ways to be awesome without working towards equal rights for women. For example, if you answered “Who do you think is more disadvantaged by gender inequality?” with “Women, but I’m still more interested in talking about men,” that’s fine.

Leaving aside the use of the phrase “be awesome” (cringe), and the fact that Emer goes on to pick out the Good Men Project as an example of said awesomeness (GMP and I have history) – I think this is pretty much spot on. There is no obligation to be feminist, and not being so doesn’t necessarily make you personally or politically bad.

It would be an interesting experiment to stop 100 random women in the street and take them through the flowchart. My guess is it would go a long way to answering the question which so often vexes mainstream liberal feminism, as to why a large majority of women choose not to identify as feminists.

That said, I do have a few issues with the analysis here. The first is the point of identification. This kind of reified, mechanistic approach removes any real personal choice from the question of whether or not someone is a feminist. It becomes a matter of pathological diagnosis instead (like “congratulations! You have syphilis!”) To me this misses one of the most important elements to the equation. I know several people who have made a conscious and conscientious decision to opt out of the label ‘feminism’ out of frustration, disgust or despair at the way the feminist mainstream deals with issues of concern to them – for example, white privilege and racism; sex worker rights or male victims of domestic and sexual abuse. It seems egregious to assume the authority to impose the label on people who may not wish to accept it, and arrogant to assume that everyone would want to be so defined.

My other theoretical issue with the post is that it positions feminism purely around matters of equality. As one persistent commenter rightly pointed out repeatedly below the line, the assumptions underpinning the question would be rejected out of hand by bell hooks, for starters, who would surely react by asking “equal with which men?”

Emer insists that to quibble over definitions of equality is enough to send you straight to the ‘Not a feminist’ box. Really? Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking of the kind of religious traditionalist who says things like “I believe Our Lord made men and women equal, which is why he decided that men should have the important job of going outside and earning money while women should have the equally important job of staying home, raising her family and keeping herself and her home all clean and purdey.” Is that a feminist belief?

As most feminists identified decades ago, the central issue is not about simple equality, but about personal, political and economic power and their distribution at the micro and macro levels. That is precisely why feminism began talking less about equal rights for women, and more about patriarchy. They are not the same issues.

I suppose we could start the flowchart with the question “Do you wish to challenge social, cultural and political structures which curtail and prescribe gender roles which systematically entrench disproportionate power relations between men and women within the context of a hegemonic capitalist system that is sustained by interlinked networks of oppression?” but I accept you would struggle to squeeze it into a little box on a flowchart.

Louise Mensch and the grotesque spectacle of white privilege

I have been trying to keep quiet on the ongoing schisms within feminism, and in particular the flare-ups between mainstream or ‘white’ feminism and those broadly grouped under the intersectional banner on social media. I’ve actually written and abandoned a couple of posts, realising they were going to help nobody and risked further hurting some who are already hurting.

Tonight a line was crossed and I can bite my tongue no longer.

On New Year’s Eve, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Caroline Criado-Perez appeared on BBC Women’s Hour as part of a review of the year. Along the way there was an exchange about intersectionality, transcribed here. Reni blogged her account of the experience. Caroline offered an apology. I declined to comment.

In the messy aftermath of the programme, Professor Liz Kelly, whom we might call a doyenne of British radical feminism, tweeted the most ill-advised hashtag I’ve ever seen in support of CCP – #reclaimintersectionalityin2014. I declined to comment.

Tonight, just as I sensed the passions and fury beginning to wane on both sides, Louise Mensch decided to march in with her hobnailed Christian Louboutin stilettos. In an astonishing series of tweets, the former Tory MP firstly accused Reni of bullying:

Reni was wrong and Caroline was wrong to give into her bullying. I wouldn’t have. #feminism

She then went on to describe Reni’s arguments as “rubbish” and “disgraceful” and accused her of trying to ‘silence’ other women.
I make it a personal policy these days to try not to march into debates between feminists, as it generally doesn’t help either side and it certainly doesn’t win me any friends. But this is not about feminism. This is about an embarrassingly privileged white person with wealth, fame, influence and platform on her side, stomping all over a young black person for having the temerity to offer ideas above her station.

The first point to make is that of all the people I know on the broad media left, Reni Eddo-Lodge is about the least prone to bullying and silencing others you could imagine. It is simply not her style. She does not smear others or troll opponents, she does not pick personal fights or call on people to check their privilege. Her blogs and tweets, though politically radical, are measured, studious and impeccably temperate. For what it is worth (and it is not especially relevant) they each contain more wisdom, insight and intelligence than Mensch could summon in a lifetime. I can only conclude that Mensch believes that simply by calling attention to racial dynamics within feminism, Reni is bullying and silencing… who? Well, racists, I guess. The alternative explanation is less flattering but perhaps more credible – that Mensch cannot be bothered distinguishing between one ‘intersectional’ woman and the next, and she was mixing up Reni Eddo-Lodge with some other woman. Do they all look the same to Louise?

We should bear in mind that Mensch has form on this. A few months ago, there was a polite exchange between Laurie Penny and Ava Vidal on Twitter. Laurie had advised ignoring a racist troll, Ava suggested that it wasn’t a white person’s place to decide how we should respond to racism. Laurie agreed, apologised and retracted. All would have been fine until Mensch decided this was some craven submission and wrote an article attacking intersectional feminism that was so ill-informed, ill-advised and ignorant it made your cortex bleed.

Many people are unsure how white privilege looks and is played out in modern society. This is it. This insistence that the racial dynamics structuring our society are the natural order of things and must be beyond challenge. This belief that any black person who does challenge existing systems is a disgraceful bully – however polite, educated and articulate she may be – and must be stamped on at the first opportunity. This is a grotesque spectacle of white privilege raised to an artform.

This week I’ve seen others within feminism ask why intersectional feminists and women of colour must be so mean, so intemperate, so rude. When we see how some in the white establishment treats those who are impeccably polite and mannered, I’m astonished they remain so restrained.

College rape and the importance of measuring success

To my eyes, one of feminism’s more frustrating traits is a widespread refusal to acknowledge social progress or its own successes. It’s rather odd when you think about it. It is at least 40 years since feminists began to turn serious attention to topics of sexual and domestic violence, with the publication of works like Sexual Politics and Against Our Will. It is 38 years since the world’s first Take Back the Night rally and 39 since the first national US coalition of rape crisis centers was formed. On university and college campuses, feminists and their allies have been lobbying (often successfully) for a wide variety of sexual assault prevention strategies since the 1980s. If you take your information from feminism’s own campaign literature, all these efforts have been completely and utterly worthless. All those women involved, all the millions of hours of campaigning, all the books, posters, and leaflets have made not the slightest jot of difference.

How do I know? Well, back in the early eighties when I first started seriously conversing with feminists, reading their books and leaflets and trying to learn about the world, I was horrified to learn that approximately one in four women would be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. I would see variations on it, such as one in four students being victims, or occasionally it would rise or fall to one in five or one in three, but the claim remained fairly constant.

Jump forward three decades, and feminist campaigners continue to use the precise same statistics. For example, here’s The Feminist Wire just a few weeks ago: “One in four college women will experience rape or attempted rape.” Here is a student feminist saying “one in five college women are rape victims.”

As anyone with even a passing awareness of criminological trends should know, something remarkable has happened to violent crime statistics over the past 30 to 40 years. It has happened to an extent in all of the developed world, but especially in the USA. It applies to all violent crime, but especially to sexual assault and rape.

NCVS-trends-336x328

When the National Crime Victimization Survey was created in 1973, it found that 250 women out of every 100,000 had been raped that year. Over the next eight years, the statistics worsened. According to NCVS, around one in every 300 American women over the age of 12 was subject to rape or attempted rape in the single year 1980. By 2010 that had fallen to one in 3,000, a decrease of 90%. At this point I should note that there are statistical problems with victimisation surveys. Their survey populations tend to miss people with more chaotic, less settled lifestyles, who are more likely to be victims of crime. The NCVS in particular is a household survey and (while efforts are made to address this) has real problems picking up domestic and interpersonal violence and abuse. However crucially, these problems have always been there. They were there in 1973, and 1980 and are still there today. So while victim surveys are not a reliable guide to actual extents of crime, they are a very reliable guide to trends. If NCVS says rapes have declined by 90%, there is little reason to doubt that this is broadly true. A variety of alternative research methods have produced similar results, and similar trends can be observed in most other developed democracies. And yet anti-rape activists continue to use statistics drawn from a profoundly different era.

It should also be acknowledged that there are other ways of estimating rape prevalence. Research by Fisher et al, conducted in 1996-7, found an incidence of 2.8% for rape and attempted rape in a period of less than seven months. If one were to scale that up to a 60 month stretch as a college student, admittedly a very crude method, one would indeed reach an incidence of around 20%. (Although we should also note that NCVS figures show a 60% decline in rapes just since 1996)

This week US News magazine ran a deliberately provocative and spiteful attack on campus feminist groups. The author Caroline Kitchens picks up on the “one in five” type statistics I’ve been discussing here and uses it to dismiss the idea that there is a problem with rape and sexual assault on campuses, and to dispute the claim that there is such a thing as “rape culture.”

I have big problems with Kitchens’ article. She dismisses anti-rape activism on the basis of Department of Justice figures, saying that: “Across the nation’s four million female college students, that comes to about one victim [of rape and sexual assault] in forty students.”

I’d agree that compared to rates of one in four, five or six (which are actually quite credible estimates of the situation as it was in the early 80s), one student in 40 being raped or sexually assaulted, if true, would be a magnificent improvement. However it is still one student in 40, which is one student in 40 too many. If one student in 40 was being murdered, would we accept that? I don’t think so, and I’m not prepared to condemn those who strive to reduce that figure to one in 400, one in 4,000 or ideally a big fat zero.

Kitchens also seems to entirely misunderstand and misrepresent what is meant by “rape culture.” I should stress that it is not a term I find especially constructive and I don’t choose to use it myself (not least because it is so easily misunderstood) but if someone is going to criticise a theoretical construct, they should criticise what it actually is, not a straw version. In brief, rape culture does not necessarily assert a “distorted view of masculinity” and nor does it require the actual incidence of rape to be omnipresent or even especially high, instead it refers to a kind of ambient cultural mood which enables rape and which considers any level of rape in society to be tolerable.

Kitchens should have been on stronger grounds with the question of how universities and colleges deal with internal allegations and complaints against students. It certainly appears that an individual such as Caleb Warner, whose case is detailed in the article, has been treated entirely unjustly and I would quite agree that there is legitimate cause for concern as to what safeguards are in place to protect the wrongly accused. However it is a huge leap from there to claiming that sexual assault prevention policies have certainly made [campuses] treacherous places for falsely accused men” or that “across the country, students accused of sexual assault are regularly tried before inadequate and unjust campus judiciaries.

I’m prepared to be corrected, but the only research I have been able to find on the practice of sexual assault inquiries on US Campuses is this one, by the Center for Public Integrity, conducted in 2010. In a survey of 130 colleges, it found that around half of all hearings found against the accused. That would suggest to me that the committees are at least being cautious in reaching their judgements. More significantly, only 10% of cases where the complaint was upheld led to the accused student being expelled.

Kitchens, in railing against exaggerated and misleading portrayals of the prevalence of sexual assault, would appear to me to be slipping into the equally dangerous territory of making an exaggerated and misleading portrayal of the extent and consequences of false rape allegations. She concludes her article by saying “advocates for due process, rules of evidence, basic justice and true gender equality need to speak louder than the “f*ckrapeculture” alarmists.”

I really do not disagree with that conclusion. I would only add that those same advocates also need to speak louder than false accusations alarmists, who are no less numerous and in some ways considerably more dangerous.

As I said at the top of this page, feminists can be frustratingly reluctant to acknowledge good news. In an attempt to rebut Kitchens’s article, Jezebel ran a piece by Erin Gloria Ryan which simply added a whole new layer of awful. In her haste to debunk the claim that the incidence of campus rape is now vastly lower than the oft-quoted one in five, Taylor glanced at the title of the study quoted by Kitchens  - The Violent Victimization of College Women – and leapt here:

So, from a survey of “violent” victimization, Kitchens extrapolated that the “one-in-five college women will be raped” statistic is false. Check out these statistics that say statistics are crap, guys.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. My eyeballs hurt.

First, Kitchens demonstrates with this column that she doesn’t know what rape is. Like Todd Akin and Whoopi Goldberg, the crime she describes is the eye rollingly cliched image of a woman walking down the street and being violently dragged into an alley by some guy with a dastardly mustache. But that’s not an accurate picture of rape. According to RAINN, more than 2/3 of rapes are perpetrated by an offender known to the victim. Most take place within a mile of the victim’s home. And in many cases of collegiate rape, the victim isn’t overpowered by physical force or violence, but by alcohol. And, legally speaking, having sex with a person who is too intoxicated to consent constitutes “rape.” Hell, of all the women I know who were raped in college, I can’t think of one who has described it to me as “violent.”

In fact, as a couple of mouse clicks would have revealed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of that name does not define rape in any such way. It actually lays out in painful detail the true nature of rape, including circumstances, relationships to the offender and all the rest of it, and says:

“This category includes forced sexual intercourse including psychological coercion as well as physical force… It includes attempted rapes, male as well as female victims and both heterosexual and homosexual  rape. Attempted rape includes verbal threats of rape… Sexual assault is also included in this category which includes a wide range of victimizations, separate from rape or attempted rape. These crimes include attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender. Sexual assaults may or may not involve force and include such things as grabbing or fondling. Sexual assault also includes verbal threats

Ryan’s reluctance to acknowledge that there may have been some element of truth to Kitchens’s charges, and her kneejerk grab for a reason to hang on to the one in five myth have led her to make an incredibly harmful assertion – that most rapes are not violent. This is astonishingly short-sighted. As has often been said, rape is a violent crime in which the weapon is sex. It is, on its own terms and without any additional aggression or physical harm, an act of the most extreme violence. For a supposedly feminist commentator to slip into this language and logic of rape apologism is sad to see.

It is also, I suspect, what happens when you tie yourself in knots trying to deny inconvenient facts.

Over the past 40 years, society has made huge progress in recognising human rights of sexual autonomy, educating men and women about sexual consent, and challenging and reducing rape culture. It is not a case of mission accomplished, by any means, but it seems to me that the strongest arguments that feminists and anti-rape campaigners have to hand is that people can change, society can change, and we know that, because people and society have already changed massively. All those who have responded to campaigns on sexual violence by shrugging and saying “hey, what can you do, you can’t change human nature” have been proven quite spectacularly wrong.

If we can get this far, there is no reason why we can’t go further.

White Slave Traffic: A Friday 13th guest post by Emma Goldman

Intro: A few years ago, the former sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill had the idea of making Friday 13th an auspicious date for sex workers and their anti-prohibition allies. She wrote:

“Friday the 13th should be good luck for whores even if it really were bad luck for Christian men.  Now, I’m not really superstitious; I don’t believe that a day can bring either good luck or bad.  But considering that the reasons for fear of this day are so closely related to the reasons our profession is maligned and suppressed, perhaps whores and those who support our rights should make every Friday the Thirteenth a day to speak out in favor of full decriminalization and an end to the institutionalized persecution of prostitutes.”

It’s a compelling invitation, and when I was looking for inspiration as to what I might write, I went back to one or two of my favourite sources. As I was browsing Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays, I quickly realised that much of what needs saying had been said over a hundred years ago, and is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. I couldn’t hope to do any better.

Goldman lived her life alongside sex workers and devoted much of her time to working for their welfare, rights and sexual health, along with sexual freedom for all women and men, including gay men, lesbians and ‘Uranians’ – those we would now call trans, intersex or gender non-conforming. Goldman was continually persecuted and even imprisoned for these efforts, as she was for her anti-capitalist and anti-war anarchism.

As a quick note on Goldman’s beliefs, it is important to note that when she describes prostitution as an “evil” she meant a political evil – an evil of commercial exploitation, not an evil of personal morality. She used the exact same language about factory work and all other forms of purchased labour under capitalism, which she calls “economic prostitution.” She also saw prostitution as an inevitable product of sexual repression, monogamy, religious restriction and the institution of marriage, which she abhorred.

When this essay was first published in Goldman’s own journal Mother Earth, it was seized as obscene material after a complaint from the notorious Christian moralist Anthony Comstock. You can read the full original here, but for now, here are some selected extracts from one of the most powerful arguments for decriminalization ever written.

—————————-

The White Slave Traffic by Emma Goldman (First published January 1910)

Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery — the white slave traffic. The papers are full of these “unheard-of conditions,” and lawmakers are already planning a new set of laws to check the horror.

It is significant that whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc. And what is the result of such crusades? Gambling is increasing, saloons are doing a lively business through back entrances, prostitution is at its height, and the system of pimps and cadets is but aggravated.

How is it that an institution, known almost to every child, should have been discovered so suddenly? How is it that this evil, known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue?

To assume that the recent investigation of the white slave traffic (and, by the way, a very superficial investigation) has discovered anything new, is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution.

*

What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”

Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.

*

Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution.

*

The most amusing side of the question now before the public is the indignation of our “good, respectable people,” especially the various Christian gentlemen, who are always to be found in the front ranks of every crusade. Is it that they are absolutely ignorant of the history of religion, and especially of the Christian religion? Or is it that they hope to blind the present generation to the part played in the past by the Church in relation to prostitution? Whatever their reason, they should be the last to cry out against the unfortunate victims of today, since it is known to every intelligent student that prostitution is of religious origin, maintained and fostered for many centuries, not as a shame, but as a virtue, hailed as such by the Gods themselves.

*

Until 1894 very little was known in America of the procurer. Then we were attacked by an epidemic of virtue. Vice was to be abolished, the country purified at all cost. The social cancer was therefore driven out of sight, but deeper into the body. Keepers of brothels, as well as their unfortunate victims, were turned over to the tender mercies of the police. The inevitable consequence of exorbitant bribes, and the penitentiary, followed.

While comparatively protected in the brothels, where they represented a certain monetary value, the girls now found themselves on the street, absolutely at the mercy of the graft-greedy police. Desperate, needing protection and longing for affection, these girls naturally proved an easy prey for cadets, themselves the result of the spirit of our commercial age. Thus the cadet system was the direct outgrowth of police persecution, graft, and attempted suppression of prostitution. It were sheer folly to confound this modern phase of the social evil with the causes of the latter.

Mere suppression and barbaric enactments can serve but to embitter, and further degrade, the unfortunate victims of ignorance and stupidity. The latter has reached its highest expression in the proposed law to make humane treatment of prostitutes a crime, punishing any one sheltering a prostitute with five years’ imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Such an attitude merely exposes the terrible lack of understanding of the true causes of prostitution, as a social factor, as well as manifesting the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.

There is not a single modern writer on the subject who does not refer to the utter futility of legislative methods in coping with the issue. Thus Dr. Blaschko finds that governmental suppression and moral crusades accomplish nothing save driving the evil into secret channels, multiplying its dangers to society. Havelock Ellis, the most thorough and humane student of prostitution, proves by a wealth of data that the more stringent the methods of persecution the worse the condition becomes. Among other data we learn that in France, “in 1560, Charles IX. abolished brothels through an edict, but the numbers of prostitutes were only increased, while many new brothels appeared in unsuspected shapes, and were more dangerous. In spite of all such legislation, or because of it, there has been no country in which prostitution has played a more conspicuous part.”

An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and ensure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones — coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.

The Equal Treatment Fallacy

I’ve heard it said that the root of all religious and secular morality is contained in the Christian dictum: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a seductive and simple message, and will get you through day to day interactions better than the average Facebook meme aphorism, but it is not a solution to social injustice.  The belief that the route to social justice is to treat everyone equally is dangerously flawed.

First, a rather violent metaphor. Imagine you have two Roman gladiators squaring up in the Coliseum. One is dressed in full body armour and helmet and armed with a slingshot. The other is barehanded and wearing a loin cloth. Under those circumstances a rule to say that the two combatants could only fight by throwing stones at each other would make anything but a fair fight.

In socioeconomic terms, the fallacy is best illustrated by Anatole France’s brilliant observation. “In its majestic equalitythe law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”  To treat rich and poor alike is to treat them entirely differently.

The fallacy appears often in gender debates. It crops up in discussions of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse, where hard-of-thinking members of my gender often splutter “But I’d love it if someone sexually harassed / sexually abused me!”

In recent weeks I have seen it applied often to the debate around misogynistic abuse on Twitter, where the ‘do unto others’ dictum has been viciously inverted. “I wouldn’t give a shit if someone threatened to rape me, wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, so you have no grounds to complain if I do it to you.”  

At the heart of the fallacy is an obliviousness to both individual and collective differences. No two individuals will react identically to a threat of violence, but since we are socialised into gendered phenomenology and face different real world risks, stresses and pressures, the impact on the typical man and the typical woman will be different. This is not to say a threat of physical or sexual violence against a man is acceptable or even that it is less unacceptable. It is to say that the difference is not quantitative, it is qualitative.

As you may have noticed, last week I wrote about penises in the Guardian. I took a fair bit of grief in the comments, and even from some valued friends on this blog, because I didn’t write the piece that most readers (at least most of the male readers) wanted me to write. They wanted a storming rebuttal of Suzanne Moore’s rules for managing you penis or a turning of the tables – a man to write the equivalent rules for managing your vaginas. I had tried to satirise both that demand and Moore’s article in a quick, snarky blog-post on this site, but I had no wish to take that particular point any further.

Critics were quite right to say that the Guardian would never publish the same article written by a man about women. However this misses the point that it would be impossible for a man to write the same article about women. Even if the genders (and genitals) were reversed while leaving the rest of the words in place, it would still be a very different article because of the surrounding cultural and political culture. With hindsight, my Guardian piece didn’t explain this very well, but this is what I was trying to say when I pointed out:

Our culture, media and politics have, for thousands of years, positively bubbled with men telling women what to do with their reproductive organs, whether it is instructing against using them too often or too rarely, using them too young, leaving them until they are too old, or medically intervening in their natural and/or God-given functions. Pertinently, many of those voices have been backed by the machineries of state, politics and religion.

I don’t think the Guardian should have published Moore’s article, because it was patronising, needlessly insulting, divisive and, above all, just a very poor article by her standards. It was self-contradictory, muddled and switching awkwardly between irony and sincerity. (Whatever political and ideological differences I have with her, I do believe Suzanne is one of the most brilliant polemicists in the British media. I’ll often accuse her of having a bad argument, rarely of writing a bad article). However that is not the same as arguing that an organisation such as the Guardian should only ever write about men in the same way they (or we, if you like) write about women and vice versa. Equal treatments do not have equal impacts and effects.

What is the alternative to ‘Do unto others…”? I’m not being entirely mischievous when I suggest that it is contained in a very different kind of dogmatic canon: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

That was intended as an economic principle, of course, but I think it very much applies to social policy and even interpersonal communications. “To each according to their needs” is a good working definition of respect at both individual and policy levels.  I also believe it applies strongly to those issues where men face gender-specific issues and disadvantages. Do male victims of violence or abuse need the same interventions, services and framework of understanding that female victims do? No, often they don’t. Their situation is likely to be different in key respects, and so too should be the response – to each according to his needs.

One of the points raised repeatedly by campaigners for men’s physical and mental health is that services are built on assumptions of patients’ needs, which in practice often mean women’s needs. One explanation proffered for boys’ underachievement in school is that the education system has in recent decades shifted from treating every pupil equally as if they were male towards treating every pupil equally as if they were female. Neither option is truly fair. It seems to me that men’s activists too often routinely demand whatever they perceive women to be getting (not least victimhood) and too rarely analysing and demanding what it is that men actually need.

The logical endpoint of the Equal Treatment Fallacy is the belief that if we treat everyone equally, then everyone will become equal. The truth is that in an unequal system, if we treat everyone equally we maintain the unequal status quo. That’s why you’ll never get me to agree to follow the modern trend to claim to be an equalist, rather than a feminist. I’m neither.

None of this is to excuse or justify rudeness, hypocrisy or negative stereotyping. Arguing that misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry is OK or politically constructive. It just means it is qualitatively different and should be understood differently. I don’t blame the 2000+ commenters on Suzanne Moore’s piece for reacting angrily to her trolling. I’ve reacted similarly to other provocations plenty of times. She was being insulting and I don’t blame anyone for feeling insulted. I would caution against using the saga as an argument for false notions of equal treatment. There is really no such thing.

Malestrom: Ten reasons why (some) men are so angry

Another week, more putrid pongs wafting from the trenches of the online gender wars. I started the week doing a little BBC breakfast TV thing alongside Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project. Laura explained why she started the project and described its success and impact over the past year; I explained why I fully support what they do and that I’d like men to acknowledge the problems and be part of the solutions. It was all very friendly, and neither of us disagreed on a word from the other.  A few hours later Laura tweeted. “Wonder if [Ally Fogg] who I spoke with on BBC this morning has had as many “stupid bitch” comments/emails as I have since….”  The answer, of course, was no. I had received precisely none. Not so much as a token “dick.”

On Tuesday I read Lindy West’s Jezebel piece which recounted the stomach-churning responses she’d received after arguing against rape jokes as a lazy vein of comedy.  Then yesterday Rebecca Watson shared the latest volleys from a two-year barrage of hate and abuse. Now it is Thursday morning. If I were to look, I do not doubt I would find another example of it starting all over with someone else. Meanwhile, across the internet, pretty much every feminist article or blog on a high-profile platform, irrespective of its truth or merit, will attract either a smattering or a deluge of abuse, mockery, fury and hate. The broad realm of the manosphere will publish yet more screeds about the iniquity of women and the evil of feminism.

Among the more common search terms that brings people to my blog are phrases like “angry men” “why men are angry” or sometimes the almost plaintive “why are men so angry?” I believe it is an important question, and one to which my thoughts keep returning. This week has prompted me to begin a series of posts that I have been considering for some time. There is no doubt that many men are angry, and specifically they are angry with feminism and/or women. But why?

Let me be clear that I realise there are many expressions of hate and anger in the world, and especially online. Many women are angry with men or other women (including feminists), many men are angry with other men, many people are angry with politics, religion, the economic system or whatever. The extent and causes of those angers are perfectly legitimate topics, but they are not what I am interested in at the moment.  This series will be about men’s anger with feminism and I make no apologies for that.

There is no single answer to the question above. In trying to make sense of the broad tide, I’ve so far narrowed it down to ten discrete strands of male anger, and I plan to discuss each of them in a separate post. Of course any one man may be angry for several (even all) of the reasons listed, and they will often interact, but I would argue that one could be angry for any one of those reasons without sharing any of the others. I also make no distinctions (yet) between legitimate and illegitimate anger, whether or not complaints are reasonable and justified, and whether they should be dismissed, challenged or attended to. That will come in due course.

For now, I’d be really interested to know from readers whether you think this list is comprehensive? Are there other possible reasons for anger that I’ve missed? Which do you think are the most significant? Are any of the reasons I suggest completely spurious? (In other words, would you deny that anyone, anywhere falls into such a category?) Should any be merged together (ie, do they describe exactly the same thing?)

If you’ve ever been angry with feminists, which categories would you recognise yourself in? If you’ve been on the receiving end of male anger, where do you mostly attribute it? Depending upon your comments and feedback, I may revise the schedule or add to the list as appropriate. To get the conversation started, here are my ten suggestions for possible reasons why some men are so angry. Please help me think them through.

 

  1. Compassion and concern? – From fathers’ rights to men as victims of violence and abuse; from educational underachievement to economic redundancy to judicial policies to men’s physical and mental health, there are many real causes for anger about male gender-specific issues. The real question, perhaps, is not whether men should be angry, but who we should be angry with.
  2. The feminist stranglehold? It is often argued that by controlling the reins of gender issues, feminism actively works against the gender-specific interests of men and prevents issues like those outlined above being adequately addressed.   Is this true or fair?
  3. Backlash – political and social conservatism?Some people are conservative and reactionary. They think society was better as it was than as it is, and are resistant to further social change. That applies to gender roles more than anything. Is hostility to feminism because it represents a challenge to the existing social and political order, and specifically to male privilege?
  4. Misogyny? There is no escaping the fact that some men simply hate women or hold them in contempt.  Is anti-feminism always misogyny, as Dworkin argued? How truly endemic is misogyny online and in society?
  5. Bitterness? There’s a cruel stereotype of the antifeminist keyboard warrior as a bitter geek, unlucky in love, sitting in his underwear in his mum’s basement complaining about the friend zone.  Is it fair? Is it relevant?
  6. Men as success objects? – Many complaints from men address issues like hypergamy. There is a palpable resentment at being expected to be the higher earner, provider etc in an era of female economic independence. Are complaints about men as “success objects” justified?  
  7. Someone on the internet is wrong? – Anyone who expresses an opinion must be prepared to be told “I think you are wrong” by others. It may be on a point of verifiable fact, or it may be a rational argument, but if we accept the possibility that feminists can sometimes be wrong about things, we must accept the corollary of disagreement and argument, which may often breed anger.   
  8. Imps and trolls? Some people like to make mischief. Some people like to be rude, threatening or downright cruel. How much online abuse is truly heartfelt and how much is disingenuous trolling, and ultimately does it matter, given the impacts on the victim?
  9. Bruised egos and male identity pride? Human beings take pride in their collective identities. For some it is nationalism or sports tribalism, religion or race, for many it is gender. Is feminism taken as a personal attack that makes men bristle?
  10. You’re not the boss of me now? People don’t like being told what to do, and since much feminism is perceived to be focussed on personal behaviour (do this, don’t do that) there is a kneejerk hostility. Could it be true that men particularly don’t like being told what to do by women?

Blue touch paper lit, standing well back, over to you for now.

Why I am not a feminist

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(First published 26/06/12)

I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.

The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself.  By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.

Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. And with whom should we agree? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.

If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.

By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I actively supported the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.

Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?


Addendum 28/05/13

Another thing that has happened a couple of times recently is being called either a “good ally” or a “bad ally” by feminists. There was a long period of my life when I would have actively described myself as a feminist ally. I now prefer not to.

The reasons why are much as above, but perhaps slightly more to do with personal psychology. Being pegged as a good or bad ally feels very like having cookies offered or snatched away, as if my ideological purity is being subtly policed.

I appreciate compliments and I appreciate thoughtful criticism. I also appreciate cookies, big chocolatey ones, feel free to send some of those my way.  But lest there be any doubt, my name is Ally (the standard Scots diminutive of Alistair.)

It rhymes with shally, not shall I?