Don’t get me wrong – I am never going to stop being passionate about the need for equality among the genders. I will always be distressed and anxious as long as we can still look at, for example, the DRC and the suffering of women there; as long as one in four women in the UK will be the victims of sexually motivated violence during the course of their lives; as long as globally families long for male children and abandon or maltreat their infant daughters, or as long as female children are not educated and have no political or social power. As long as we only have to turn to any magazine or newspaper, or advertising billboard, or TV advert to see women as objects, as submissive, as tools to whom millions of products are marketed to make us spend billions of pounds, dollars and euros on make-up, clothes, household cleaning products, childcare ‘solutions’, and cosmetic surgery.
These are reasons enough to believe wholeheartedly in the necessity, the very real and urgent necessity of a global campaign for gender equality. When you empower women, you empower the world – and empowerment does not mean having the ability or the right to market yourself wholly as a sex object, although obviously that is part of people’s choice.
I also have very personal reasons for wishing for a seismic shift in the way that the genders view themselves and behave towards each other. I was sexually assaulted when I was fourteen by a boy two years older than me who had no conception that what he was doing was wrong. Over the previous months he had systematically eroded my confidence in myself and my trust in any of my friends. He dominated my world. Even when he held a knife to my throat in supposed jest, I forgave him, believing that his whispered threat “don’t you ever leave me” was evidence of his huge loneliness, of his need for me. And because he blamed me for everything that happened between us, claiming that I had deceived him, calling me a slut and publishing every detail on his blog for all his and my friends to read, I still blamed myself as well. I have spent the last six years apologising for him and hating him but I still believe that he was not entirely to blame. I don’t believe he really knew or thought about what he was doing. His life and upbringing had led up to that point – knowing what I know about what had happened to him in recent years, I know that a lot of his behaviour made sense. It was horrible, and I have lived with it, but it makes a lot of sense.
And this experience and many others (including the encounter with the man who mistook me for a prostitute in Italy a few years ago) have driven me for years to be a passionate and deeply committed feminist. I worked in Southampton Women’s Aid over the summer, and having heard about what has been done to many women by the partners they loved and trusted – and that, almost more than anything, has fed my urgent sense that globally a huge shift in the way the genders behave towards each other is desperately needed.
But over the last weeks I have become increasingly anxious about the legacy and effect of feminism. In many discussions at which I have been present I have heard a rhetoric of hatred directed at men. Among many feminists I talk to, I have been aware that there seems to be a view of men as ‘potential rapists’. The issue of consent is seen as a highly gendered issue – it’s seen to be an important need to tell men that they cannot rape women, rather than actually a more widespread issue that all people might need to be more aware of what constitutes consent and how to give and receive consent. The thing that bothers me is that many of the issues that affect women today also affect men. Men are not just the aggressors – to point out that male victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault are in need of support and understanding should not be seen as a sign of betrayal of some mythical sisterhood. I am ambivalent about the idea that to tackle issues that do – overwhelmingly – affect women, we must ignore or even shut out men from the discussion. After all, the only way to stop someone behaving in a violent or abusive way towards their partner is to talk to them, rather than the victim. And I was horrified to read in a magazine recently a series of articles from the point of view of a female and male victim of domestic abuse and a female perpetrator. Where was the voice of the male perpetrator? I don’t believe that it would have been inappropriate to hear from a man explaining why he behaved in the way he did. I don’t believe that men are in some way automatons, and that the vast majority of them will, given half a chance, rape and brutalise their way through female society. I think as long as the feminist movement continues to view a homogenous mass of men with the degree of suspicion and even hatred that I’ve encountered in the last few weeks we will continue to flounder.
I know that this is not the way that by any means all feminists feel. I know that when you talk rationally to every single member of the groups I’ve been part of, not one of them would genuinely espouse some of the things they have said – and I include myself in that group. I wince at the memory of certain arguments I’ve put forward, forgetting the capacity and concern and love that men, globally, are capable of. But in the heat of the moment, what comes out is rage. And that’s why I have a problem – why is it acceptable to be so incredibly sexist towards men, as though we have the right?
Furthermore, and finally, and this is my main problem – ‘feminist’ as a term carries a lot of baggage. I am, and always will be, incredibly grateful to the millions of women globally who have risked or lost their lives over the past two hundred years to ensure that we can have the freedoms we have today – the right to education, to a vote, to own our own houses and bodies and children, to decide whether or not we want to have abortions, to earn our own money, to stand equal and at the side of every other human being on the planet. But that movement, that two-centuries and older movement has not always gone by the name feminism. And I don’t think therefore that it’s necessary to cling to a term that is now seen as so off-putting to so many people.
Until we have a movement that genuinely engages with all people, regardless of gender, and regardless of what we call ourselves, feminism will fail to make any of the changes that are so necessary in a global society. As long as so many people continue to use and hear the sentence “I’m not a feminist, but…”, then we have a problem. A name change does not signal an abandonment of the principles that have guided so many men and women over the last few centuries. It just means we’ve grown up.