I never thought about feminism when I was younger. I had a lot of vivid, contradictory ideas about capitalism, imperialism and war but I would probably have dismissed feminism as irrelevant identity politics. As I grow older, though, I become more and more feminist. Part of how I got there was by reading more widely and coming across, again and again, the oppression of women in other countries – for the most part religious.
There were more subtle changes. I met women who had tried to starve themselves, under the influence of billboards and magazines telling them how to look. And the irony is that men are just as likely to become feminists as women, because we hang around with men and we hear the things men say when women aren’t around. Certain assumptions and attitudes kept recurring in the company of men, and the more I saw of this male groupthink the less I liked it. That women are dispensable repositories of male sexual offloading, or manipulative creatures that have to be defeated through trickery, that it’s acceptable to get a woman drunk in order to have sex with her, that the responsibility for rape lies with the victim – these are all, in my experience, widespread male attitudes. Feminists are often accused of ‘demonising’ all men as potential rapists and that’s a trap some probably fall into, but you can’t be a feminist without recognising the scale of misogyny that is out there.
On the face of it men do well from the patriarchy deal. My gender dominates the House of Commons, the stock exchange and the creative industries. We tend to earn more and are promoted more easily. We can sleep around without the risk of being called a ‘slut’. When marriages fall apart, women are more likely to be left bringing up children alone. All that men have to do is pay maintenance, and if they don’t want to, the CSA is notoriously incompetent at collecting it – as millions of lone parents on the poverty line could tell you. Women couldn’t even vote until my grandmother’s generation. They are likely to be disproportionally hit by economic downturn. Women even still do most of the housework.
So what exactly is in feminism – for men? Reading this dialogue by Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins has helped me to clarify my feelings about all this. Guys don’t have it all our own way – as Robbins points out, we are more at risk of suicide. His idea is that in a Unilad world we find it hard to express whatever vulnerabilities we might have:
Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.
A more convincing point, which Robbins also touches on, is the infantilising cliche that women are only into relationships and men are only into sex – ‘It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis.’ It’s the same stupid Islamic impulse to cover women in sackcloth lest the sight of bare flesh lead to riots.
Despite the arbitrary social advantages it’s given me, I agree that patriarchy diminishes men too. I don’t want to live in a miserable society where half the population is enslaved. It depresses me that the expectations of women in the UK are kept down to the level of: get a boyfriend – or that shitty neologism ‘partner’ – get a house, have a baby, have more babies. For many people that’s the dream, and good luck to them. But we should also tell our daughters and sisters that there’s a world out there.
I have my differences with Laurie Penny’s structural conception of misogyny. The cultural approach leads feminists to focus on petty symbolic issues at the expense of severe avoidable harm. I don’t see the point of campaigns against children’s dolls and schoolboy FHM-style magazines, not in a country that has become Europe’s soft touch for female genital mutilation.
But the new wave of feminism has done a great deal to help men empathise with the visceral risks and hostility women face. Men are bigger and stronger than women. Although we’re just as likely to face street crime, we don’t necessarily fear it. It’s different for girls. Take street harassment. This is not harmless shouted compliments, as was claimed by its apologists. Journalists spoke to women who had been followed around, groped and assaulted. Research claimed that almost half of women under 34 had to deal with this kind of thing. An east London music photographer told the Independent that: ‘It’s changed the way I live in London, the way I dress, the areas I visit. I turn down things if it’s late. I don’t have the money to take taxis all the time.’ It’s a fear women learn to live with. The crime writer Julia Crouch said at Harrogate that when she’s alone and walking at night, she carries her keys in one hand, ready to thrust the sharp end into an attacker’s eyeball. Crouch said she had taught her teenage daughter the same thing.
The internet has taken harassment of women into new dimensions of cruelty. Again, this is not just inappropriate comment. The most graphic illustration of this harassment is from Helen Lewis’s piece on the US blogger Anita Sarkeesian. Anti-feminist haterz manufactured images of her being raped by cartoon characters, and circulated these online. They set up hate forums dedicated to Sarkeesian and posted her street address. There is also a game, featuring a headshot of Sarkeesian, that encourages players to ‘beat this bitch up’. Players click the screen to simulate blows, and Sarkeesian’s face becomes bloody and swollen. What’s staggering is the effort that’s been put into this. Someone’s actually cleared a day, sat down and coded this game, and considered it time well spent.
And women who defy these expectations are seen as fair game. Ask yourself if a Louis Penny or Lawrence Penny would be taking as much abuse.
While people accept white UAF anti-racists, and straight advocates for gay rights, the idea of a male feminist still seems unusual. Irvine Welsh said that the white knight is as much a male fantasy as a female one, and Robbins relates that ‘There are men who say that I only support feminism to get laid.’ Am I supporting feminism to get laid? No, I don’t think so, because I am not an activist. You don’t get laid sitting at a desk. For me it’s more the capacity for empathy, which develops as you get older, and a disgusted fury at the immature viciousness that passes for masculinity in the above cases. Real men don’t rape women. Real men don’t harass women. That should be something we can all get behind.
One final point. Leftwing feminists sometimes write as if the left is a misogyny-free zone. That is not true, as the Assange case illustrates. Watch the tweets that female journalists get when they write about him. The left doesn’t own feminism, it’s not even that good at feminism. Many of the derogatory comments I heard about women in general, that I related in para one, I heard from middle class liberals.
Update: Some Brighton hipsters have accused me of ‘mansplaining’, in a piece that misrepresents almost everything I have written above