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Archive for the ‘Misandry’ Category

As I have written many times before, I believe people who are concerned about women’s human rights and wellbeing and about men’s human rights and wellbeing should be natural allies. That’s pretty much the core of my philosophy on gender issues. I’ve made clear my disdain for men’s activists who lay blame for most of men’s problems at the door of feminism. I also despair of the logic which says any and all feminist activism is, by definition, misandrist.

So all things considered, I should have been applauding Lindy West’s blog on Jezebel last week, where she basically made those precise same points. Truth is, I hated it. Partly that was down to the tone, which I found painfully patronising. In lecturing men on the male experience and the extent and nature of men’s problems, she provided a rare example of what we might call “womansplaining.” (Incidentally, a word to male readers – if you want to know why many women get so annoyed by us guys explaining to them what feminism is and should be, read the article, flip the genders and empathise.)

I’d add that in her “Part 4: A list of Men’s Rights issues that feminism is already working on”, she paints a rosy portrait of feminism which ducks most of the more credible complaints. To take just one example, she says:  “Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charge” which, firstly, is not entirely true – there are a few feminists who argue that women accused of domestic abuse are almost invariably acting in self-defence. More significantly, it dodges the point that very many feminists have actively and furiously resisted attempts to highlight male victimisation and argue and lobby strongly against gender-neutral approaches to the problem.          

In amongst all that, one of her arguments in particular raised an issue that I’ve wanted to address for a while, and that is the meme “misandry isn’t a thing” (or in Lindy’s version, “misandry isn’t real.”) This is a common refrain within modern feminism, often used as a throwaway dismissal of a (perceived) male troll or heckler.  Here it is explained and used as a central basis to the argument, which gives us something to get our teeth into.

Dictionaries define misandry as hatred of men. A more detailed working definition might be something like ‘an extreme or irrational hatred, fear, demonization or contempt for men.’ Lindy West readily admits that there are some radical feminists or wounded women who really do hate men, and that our culture produces many derogatory and unfair portrayals of men, but insists that “misandry is not a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny.”

What feminists mean when they say ‘misandry isn’t a thing’ is that because our society systematically privileges men and disempowers women, misogyny serves a different cultural purpose, has different and more damaging impacts and grows from different roots to misandry. To a certain extent I agree with that, but saying misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry does not exist at all. I believe that arguing that misandry isn’t real is damaging to men, damaging to women and damaging to the struggle for social justice.

I would distinguish three common varieties of misandry which are most definitely real. The first is a personal prejudice, which may often arise from damaging or hurtful experiences at the hands of men, creating a negative stereotype heuristic. This may not be admirable, but it is often understandable. The second is an ideological misandry arising from certain strains of radical feminism, roughly caricatured as the ‘all men are rapists’ tendency. I think such ideas are wrong and harmful, but I’m also far from convinced that these people are anywhere close to being numerous or powerful enough to cause any real damage, except perhaps to feminism itself.

The third variety of misandry is the one that seriously concerns me, and it is worth looking in detail at what it is and what it does. Cultural misandry is a significant force in policing and constraining the roles of men, and indeed women in society. Our capitalist hegemonic culture (or patriarchy, if you prefer) considers it acceptable to routinely mock and denigrate men’s domestic and child-caring abilities because this acts strongly to discourage deviations from the gender status quo, from which vested interests profit. Our culture systematically devalues male deaths (in news reports specifying numbers of deaths of women and children, for instance) because economic interests require a degree of male disposability in the workplace and military interests may require the mass dispatch of young men to die on battlefields at a moment’s notice. When society mocks and reviles male victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the subtext is that that it is women’s place to be victimized and oppressed, not men’s.

When feminists say that misandry isn’t a thing, what I hear is that these issues are so minor, so marginal that they are insignificant. It is not just that they are unworthy of attention, they are not even worthy of a word to describe them. If Lindy West really wants more men to be allies to the feminist movement and wants us to believe that feminism really is on our side, then I struggle to see how this type of rhetoric is in any way helpful.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that feminism should suddenly drop its struggles for women’s equality, autonomy, safety and welfare in favour of challenging male-only military conscription or setting up hostels for male abuse victims, I don’t think that is or should be feminism’s job. Nor do I think that all allegations of misandry should be considered reasonable or accurate.  But I would suggest that if we want to end what Lindy calls the “endless, fruitless turd-pong” between men’s activists and feminists online, some rhetorical habits might need to change on both sides.

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I’d been planning to let the issue of the Nice Guys of OK Cupid blog on Tumblr slide. It is pretty depressing from every perspective. I’d squabbled and grumbled about it on Twitter with a few people, and then thankfully the Christmas break pushed it out of my mind.

If it passed you by, the Tumblr scours the dating/social networking site OK Cupid for profiles of men and then posts their pictures (without permission) alongside selected quotes. The typical entry shows a less than attractive guy with a few quotes from his profile proclaiming himself a ‘nice guy’ who is fed up of being ‘friendzoned’ and then a ‘wrong’ answer from the set profile questionnaires such as “Should women feel an obligation to shave their legs? Yes.”

Some of them are unquestionably far worse. They talk about ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches’ or they say women should sometimes be obliged to have sex with them, and a few are downright rapey. Many, however, are not. In between the horrors are a lot like these (verbatim and in toto):

I’m a nice guy 😮

I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT:  If I will find a relationship via this iPhone App or if every girl is just a friend or demands a Prince Charming rather than the knight I am / why I get into a girl’s friendzone so easily.”

Or

Remember that boy in high school who helped give relationship advice to girls he really liked that were taken? Every time he tries to solve an issue that the girl had, he succeeds, but not with the girl. That boy was me. I was always in the friend zone. The “nice guy.”

These are not rank misogynists and wannabe rapists, they’re not even showing any particular sense of privilege or entitlement. On the contrary, many of the entries come across as more self-pitying, bitter or pathetic than those above. Those are not attractive qualities, but they are sadly common among people who are  at an extremely low ebb emotionally, or struggling with depression. I think it is not only immoral, but potentially dangerous to place them in the 21st Century equivalent of the medieval stocks to be mocked, abused and humiliated.  The blog struck me less as a blow against privilege, and more as ugly bullying of people who already feel like losers.

I was happy to leave it at that. But then one of my Twitter duellists, the prominent male feminist Hugo Schwyzer, asked if he could quote my tweets in a piece he was writing. Rather than find myself hoisted on a 140 character petard, I emailed him with a couple of comments outlining my concerns

Hugo’s piece has just gone up on Jezebel. In the section quoting me, he says:

“Without entirely dismissing Fogg’s concern that some young men’s rage or despair could be worsened as a result of NGOKC, there’s a lot more to the site than mockery. What’s on offer isn’t just an opportunity to snort derisively at the socially awkward; it’s a chance to talk about the very real problem of male sexual entitlement.”

The first thing to say is that after saying he is not entirely dismissing my concerns, he never once returns to them in any way, which looks pretty much like dismissal to me. Next, I note how Hugo says what’s on offer “isn’t just an opportunity to snort derisively at the socially awkward” – my emphasis because he isn’t denying that the site is, at least in part, precisely that. However because Hugo wants to have a chat about male sexual entitlement, he is quite prepared to accept this bullying as a means to an end, and write off the victims as collateral damage. I can only try to imagine how these men must feel, what the psychological consequences might be for a dejected, lonely young man with minimal self-esteem who suddenly finds himself subjected to public ridicule by millions and branded a douche, a misogynist and a creep by association. But take it on the chin guys, because Hugo wants to talk about stuff.

I should say at this point that I’m not one of the world’s countless Hugo-haters. Although we have many profound political disagreements, we have an amicable relationship online. That said, he does have some habits in his writing that drive me up the wall and half way across the ceiling. Foremost among them is his belief that he knows exactly what all men are thinking and their primal motivations, even if he’s never met them and knows nothing about them. Rather than accepting that the men featured in the Tumblr might be socially and personally diverse and psychologically complex, either individually and as group, Hugo has them all pegged. Borrowing a line from Laurie Penny in the New Statesman (in a much more nuanced but still problematic piece), he writes:

 The great unifying theme of the curated profiles is indignation. These are young men who were told that if they were nice, then, as Laurie Penny puts it, they feel that women “must be obliged to have sex with them.”

Raised to believe in a perverse social/sexual contract that promised access to women’s bodies in exchange for rote expressions of kindness, these boys have at least begun to learn that there is no Magic Sex Fairy.

While only a small percentage of these guys may be prone to imminent violence, virtually all of them insist, in one way or another, that women owe them.

Besides the near-universal sense that they’ve been unjustly defrauded, the great commonality among these Nice Guys is their contempt for women’s non-sexual friendship.

Their anger, in other words, is that their own deception didn’t work as they had hoped. It’s a monumental overask to expect women to be gentle with the egos of men who only feigned friendship in order to get laid.

I fully accept that may well be some men featured on NGOOKC who meet those descriptions perfectly. I strongly suspect there are many who do not. I cannot be sure that there are some genuinely “nice”, gentle, loving, humble men on there whose only problems are lack of confidence, self-esteem and chronic loneliness, because I haven’t met any of them. But nor, I presume, have the people behind the Tumblr, nor have the endless thousands of online surfers who have gleefully shared their humiliation on social media, and nor has Hugo Schwyzer.

My sense is that this doesn’t matter to them, because what is being mocked here is not the individuals, it is the archetype. The political target is The Nice Guy ™ who represents a certain strain of male privilege and entitlement, and the extent to which any of the specific targets match the profile, the extent to which they deserve to be personally humiliated is irrelevant to Hugo and the site’s creators and fans.

I happen to agree that the archetype deserves mockery and vilification, but that is beside the point. Archetypes don’t have to pluck up the courage to join a dating site and then go through the awkward steps of creating a clumsy profile. People do. Archetypes don’t cry themselves to sleep into their pillows. People do. Archetypes don’t suffer if their fragile self-esteem is kicked into the dirt and trampled on. People do. Archetypes don’t self-harm and drink or drug themselves into numb oblivion. People do.

The Internet is awash with nastiness of all sorts. It can be legitimate and proportionate to name and shame misogynists, rape apologists and hatemongers of all sorts. Indeed it is necessary. It can also be legitimate and proportionate to name and shame cruel bullies and their apologists, and no less necessary.

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This is the text which I wrote for my presentation to the 2nd National Conference for Men and Boys in Brighton last week. As is the way of these things, I went slightly off script on the day. I believe a video of the actual presentation is due up soon, I’ll add that when it is available. I’ll be writing more of my thoughts about the conference in the near future.

 

What an honour it is to be here today. It is humbling to be around so many amazing and effective charities, campaigns and agencies who are making such a difference to people’s lives in the real world.

I feel like a bit of a fraud if I’m honest. While you guys are out getting your hands dirty and working on the ground, as a writer, blogger and journalist I’m mostly hunched over a laptop in my underpants. And there’s an image you’re invited to bleach from your mind as quickly as you can. Actually there are a lot of things I’d like to bleach from my mind too. It’s not always a pleasant experience to be involved in debates about gender and masculinity in the media and on the internet. You could probably boil it down to this:

 

 

Misogyny, misandry and kittens.  The entire internet in a Powerpoint slide. Those memes come from the social networking site Tumblr where they find such things hilarious, and in truth I think they add up to little more than a bit of playful pigtail pulling on both sides. Things are not always so twee.

Earlier this summer a feminist cultural critic called Anita Sarkeesian launched a kickstarter proposal. She wanted to crowd-fund a series of videos that would examine portrayals of women in video games.

 

 

Now if I’m honest that doesn’t strike me as the most urgent cause around. If I had a few quid going spare I could think of more useful things to do with it but each to their own. But look at the bottom line of that slide: Comments : 14,212. Comments on that video were open for only 12 days. It quickly became one of the most controversial videos in YouTube history. Why? Because a huge proportion of the comments were like this:

 

 

A couple of things I’d draw your attention to here. First is that if you’re going to accuse someone of stupidity, it generally helps if you can spell the word. Secondly, there’s that sandwich thing again. I can’t help noticing that an awful lot of angry men on the internet seem to be hungry a lot of the time. That might explain a lot – keep your blood sugar levels up guys, really.

That was only the beginning. People set up Anita Sarkeesian hate sites, blogs and groups on Facebook. They vandalised her Wikipedia entry with abuse, they created a video game where you could beat up Anita Sarkeesian until you changed her photo into a bruised and bloody pulp.

Charming.

This is just one example of something endemic within online media, I could give you endless examples of a seething tide of resentment towards feminism that is often indistinguishable from outright misogyny.

The only blessing, perhaps, is that most of this hatred and anger can be found in the comments on articles, on social media and on blogs.  When issues are raised about men,  a different, but perhaps no less disturbing phenomenon emerges.

A few months ago psychologists published an important paper into the effects of fathers’ depression. It showed that a baby born to a depressed father is vastly more likely to develop behavioural, educational and physical and mental health problems. Here is how Observer columnist Barbara Ellen responded

 

I know that several people and organizations who are here today are involved in the Shed initiative, and I think most of us are now aware of the benefits it can bring to men’s mental health. When the initiative was first brought to the UK, here is how the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan reacted

 

 

It all adds up to an ugly picture.

But out in the real world, the one occupied by you guys every day, I see men and women, boys and girls, muddling along just fine. I firmly believe that most men do not hate women. Most women are not indifferent or dismissive of men’s issues. But people like you need people like me in the media to highlight your issues, raise awareness, help raise funding, steer public understanding and opinion. I cannot tell you how much harder it is to do that when surrounded by mood music of hatred and bigotry. It is not only needless and offensive, it is downright damaging.

Men and women are interdependent. Men’s issues are women’s problems and vice versa.

If we want genuine equality in the domestic realm and the workplace, where better to start than the institutional discrimination of the family courts and criminal justice system, the parental leave regulations and every other institution that equates parenthood with motherhood.

If we want to rid the world of the horrors of female genital mutilation, how much easier would that be if we agreed that it is inexcusable to inflict unnecessary genital mutilation on any child, girl or boy?

Despite the impression one might get from the swamp of the internet, I firmly believe that the interests of men, and the interests of women are inseparable. There are so many issues on which we could and should agree.

As a man, I know that if I find myself alone with a woman on a train carriage or isolated backstreet, she will worry that I might attack or sexually harass her, and I hate that. There is only one solution, and it is to work together to make sexual assault, abuse and harassment so rare that it does not even enter a woman’s head that she might be at risk.

I won’t suggest this will be easy. There are bitter people on both sides who see men and women as locked in conflict for power and control. Well if we have learned anything from the history of human conflict it is that hate begets bigotry and bigotry begets hatred. No conflict has ever been solved by squabbling about who has it worse or who started it. That is the politics of the playground and it is fruitless.

There are some genuinely difficult, if not irreconcilable differences between the men’s sector or the men’s movement, and feminism. The issue of domestic abuse remains laden with ideological baggage. Intimate partner violence springs from a well of interpersonal conflict, abuse, neglect and anger. Violence against women cannot be separated from violence against men, violence against children. It is all part of the same self-perpetuating machine. To reduce the amount of violence inflicted by some men – against women, other men or themselves, our first priority must be addressing the ways in which we socialise, marginalise and often brutalise our boys and men, how we normalise violence in the male identity.

Another obvious problem will be between supporting the right to justice of victims of rape and the rights of men who may have been wrongly accused of the crime. How do you reconcile the demand that a woman reporting a rape should always be believed with the demand that an accused person always be considered innocent until proven guilty? The truth is you can’t. However we could get much further if both sides were prepared to accept the perspective of the other, accept that difference of opinion stem from genuine concern and good faith, and work together to try to find the best solutions for everyone.

The men’s sector, the men’s movement if you prefer, has much to gain from working alongside feminists. Most of us are pretty new to this gender business, feminists have been at it for decades.  I’m not a religious person, but I always quite liked the little wristbands worn by some evangelists with the letters W.W.J.D.  – What Would Jesus Do? As someone who cares about men’s issues, I have my own version. Whenever a relevant issue turns up in the news, I ask myself “what would feminism do?”

When news breaks that another child in London or Bristol has died following a botched genital mutilation, what would feminism do? It would attempt to channel the outrage and anger, publicise the case, campaign, lobby and petition to try to ensure it never happens again. Indeed feminism would react exactly as Glen and the team do here with the end circumcision campaign. But their voices  – our voices – are few and far between.

You may be aware that according to the Fawcett Society, today is National Equal Pay Day. November 2nd is the point in the year where women would stop earning if their hourly wage was exactly the same as men. But did you know that if men died at work at the same rate as women do, every year there would be no male workplace fatalities after January 10th? I hereby declare January 10th to be Fatal Injuries at Work Day! That is what feminism would do, it would declare zero tolerance of workplace fatalities.

Of course as men’s advocates and activists, we cannot charge into feminist space and tell them what to do. Take it from me, that really doesn’t go down well. But we can make sure our own house is in order. I believe we should be clear that the men’s movement gathered here today is not anti-women or anti-feminist. We should offer no quarter and no harbour to misogyny. Where there is a genuine conflict of interest and opinion, we will aim for the moral high ground not the lowest common denominator.

If we can do that, we will bring many feminists along with us. Not all, but many. Not only will that be better for men, it will be better for women too.

 

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[The release of Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men has sparked a veritable inferno of comment and criticism. Regular readers shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I have a lot of thoughts about the book and accompanying commentary, and over the next week or two  I’ll spell them out in a series of blogs, here and elsewhere.]

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“The year is 2012. England, traditionally a land of heroes and great statesmen, is in the grip of a new regime. The country is being run by women. They are the breadwinners, the rulers. Their state police strike terror into the hearts of the subjugated male.  In short, the roles have been completely reversed: It is the man, not the woman, who now wears the frock.”

No, this is not the introduction to Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men. It is in fact the opening of The Worm That Turned, a series of satirical sketches that first ran on the BBC in 1979. You should be able to tell them apart. One is an ridiculous dystopian fantasy peopled by domineering, violent, oversexed dominatrices and deploying hyperbole, sexist stereotyping and fanciful distortion to great comedic effect, while the other stars The Two Ronnies.

Yes, a cheap and easy shot, but not entirely undeserved. The very title The End of Men is so overblown the author apologises for it repeatedly through the book. The subtitle “…and the rise of women” is a far better reflection of the contents, but presumably might be expected to shift fewer units. Since the publicity machine began to roll on both sides of the Atlantic, informed critics have pointed out umpteen instances where factual and statistical claims are either misleading, cherry-picked to fit the narrative or downright false. The sociologist Philip N. Cohen has diligently unpicked her use of US social statistics and found them wanting, Stephanie Coontz has dug further into the economic stats, while  Mara Hvistendahl has done the same for Rosin’s claims about Asian (particularly South Korean) women.  That’s the quantitative side, the qualitative evidence has also been queried with this damning account by one of Rosin’s interviewees which suggests his experiences have been severely distorted to fit the narrative.

I’ll add one little credibility bomb of my own. In the chapter on the supposed increase in female violence and aggression, Rosin states baldly that:

“A recent British study found that women were three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence [than men].”

From this you might reasonably assume that three times as many women as men are arrested for domestic violence in Britain. I recognised the study she references – it found that where a woman is identified as the primary offender in an incident, her chances of being arrested are three times higher. That tells you something about arresting policies of police officers, but literally nothing nothing about the prevalence of female violence.  (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, but never mind). In truth the study found that nine men are arrested for every one woman.

When you know that so many claims in the book are unreliable, it becomes very difficult to trust anything Rosin  says. That is frustrating, because had the research and statistics been reported accurately, the issues she wants to address would have been no less compelling. The relative underachievement of boys and men in education and employment is indeeed a hugely pressing concern. The changing roles of women in the workplace and family may be the most significant sociological phenomenon of our times. The impacts of changing gender roles upon criminality and sexual habits are fascinating.  This pudding has quite enough eggs already.

Rosin adopts the cloak of observer rather than polemicist. In the New York Times, Jennifer Homans criticised the book for being ‘carelessly apolitical‘ but I disagree – a Panglossian acceptance of the status quo is a political stance. A running theme through the book is that if women can learn the rules and play the game of turbocharged neoliberal capitalism, they can succeed in anything and everything. Rosin argues that the continuing predominance of men at the pinnacle of power – in politics, industry, business and culture – is the last gasp of patriarchy and destined to crumble. This betrays a spectacularly naive view of how true power is attained and retained. She also, perhaps unwittingly, suggests that if women of all social classes, nationalities and backgrounds are prepared to put up with sexual harassment and sexist environments in the workplace, sacrifice relationships with their partners and their children and work like huskies from dawn until midnight, then the world is their pearl-bearing oyster. I can’t be the only one to find this message less inspirational than deeply depressing. Parallel to this runs the implication that men’s underachievement is of their own making, not enough males are prepared to devote their lives to chasing every position, every promotion, every penny, whatever the cost to their personal lives. Rosin never explicitly states that modern men are just too lazy, but that is the portrait she paints. For women and men alike, the problem is not that we don’t know the rules of the game, but that the rules of the game stink.

Reappraising and reinventing our gender roles will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Passing legislation against discrimination and introducing family friendly policies is the easy bit. Adapting our cultures, our identities, our social habits and our deeply entrenched beliefs about the nature and expression of gender will take far, far longer. The End of Men conveys a sigh of resignation about our newly configured world, when what is needed is an alarm call.  It is entirely unacceptable that generations of young men are considered increasingly  obsolete by economics, society and themselves. Rosin seems to recognise this problem while also contributing to it.

The year is 2012, and the worm has not yet turned, although it is certainly wriggling in some very interesting directions. For all its shortcomings, Rosin’s book should be welcomed as a spark to an essential discussion. This is not the End of Men, but it may be the beginning of a vitally important debate.

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Last week the Independent ran a major series of articles on the issue of incarcerated mothers, and the impact of imprisonment on their children.

I’ve always been a strong advocate of prison reform. The old saw about prison being an expensive way of making bad people worse may be a cliché, but is no less true for that. Ludicrous numbers of defendants are remanded in custody pre-trial. The social harm caused by issuing short sentences to non-violent offenders vastly outweighs any deterrent or rehabilitatory benefits,while research into the personal characteristics of prisoners confirms that, for many inmates, prison is not so much a place for punishment and correction as one checkpoint on a circuit of that begins with childhood neglect, abuse and institutionalisation and continues through mental health problems, addiction, homelessness and exploitation. Mass imprisonment is less about individual failings than a succession of social policy calamities.

So I do not oppose efforts made in the wake of the Corston Report, to overhaul policies relating to the imprisonment of women. What I ask is that the same logic be applied to the imprisonment of men. I’m very grateful that the Independent blog editors gave me the platform to make that point at length yesterday.

In that article I point out that in fact only 20% of female prisoners are resident mothers, while the many known harms caused to children of prisoners are taken from research which, overwhelmingly, relates to imprisoned fathers, not mothers. The assumption that ‘woman’ equals ‘mother’ equals ‘loving, responsible carer’ is not only inaccurate but sexist, while the implicit corollary, that male prisoners are less deserving of sympathy and compassion, is little better.

There was one other point from the Independent series which I let pass in my response piece, but frankly it has been bugging me, so I’m going to cover it here. In the piece about grandmothers left (literally) holding the baby, Paul Vallely and Sarah Cassidy note that:

“When a father is jailed, it is likely that his children will remain in their own home with their mother. But only 9 per cent of children whose mothers are jailed are cared for by their fathers. That is, in part, a reflection of the widespread dereliction of duty among many fathers.”

In the Indy leader that launched the series, the anonymous leader writer went further:

“Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.”

A staggering indictment of modern fatherhood. Really, Independent?

We know from the same article that a third of those fathers are themselves in prison. The survey which produced that statistic didn’t explain the circumstances of the other two thirds. The partners of female prisoners will very commonly share their chaotic lifestyles and troubled personal histories, so without estimating numbers, I’d bet my last penny that the various situations will include:

  • Fathers who were never known or identified
    Fathers who are homeless, in psychiatric institutions or dead.
    Fathers who have been excluded by the mother’s choice to end the relationship.
    Fathers who are violent or abusive and need to be kept away from mother and children alike.
    Fathers who have abandoned their responsibilities and ‘done a runner.’

In addition, and this is a statistical equation you may need to wrap your head around, we know that mothers in a stable relationship are regularly spared custody or longer sentences by magistrates as they are considered the ‘primary carer’ of their children – even if a father is at hand. Without this mitigation, the number of women in prison would be much higher, and so too would the proportion for whom a father takes over responsibility for the kids. (To be clear, I don’t disagree with this policy, on the contrary I’d extend it to fathers and make the policy gender neutral. But it does help to explain the 9 per cent figure)

Yes, of course some of the partners of women in prison are undoubtedly irresponsible or a danger to their children. However those men are no more typical of “modern fatherhood” than the female prisoners are of “modern motherhood.” The fathers, like the mothers, are likely to be living lives that are twisted by addiction, mental health problems, tragic childhoods and all the rest. Can you imagine an Independent editorial saying: “it is a staggering indictment of modern motherhood that half the women in prison are drug addicts and two-thirds do not live with and care for their own children”? It would be crazy, suggesting that such women are somehow typical of the general population. The same assertion can be made about fathers without so much as a blink. Whatever the 9 per cent figure might tell us about prison populations, it tells us literally nothing about “modern fatherhood” far less being a “staggering indictment.”

This type of low-level casual misandry is tiresome and toxic. I believe it is also emblematic of the fundamental logical and political flaws in the debate around women’s prisons. The unthinking assumption is that a woman’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality invariably means she’s a victim of social circumstance, whereas a man’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality is a product of his personal weakness or venality. Neither assumption gives an accurate or satisfactory picture of the depressingly messy lives of prison populations, whatever the gender.

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What is the job of a comedian? To make us laugh, you say?

I disagree.

Laughter is but one skill of their trade. Saying a comedian’s job is to make us laugh is like saying a taxi driver’s job is to turn a steering wheel. No. Like the cabbie, the comic’s job is to take us somewhere. A great comic can make us think afresh, help us to see the world and our lives from a different angle. Comedians are no different in that sense from novelists, painters, film-makers, poets or any other creative artists.

That’s not to say all comedy should deal in matters of political significance or philosophical profundity. The absurdities of our language, bodily functions or a trip to the supermarket are just as valid as Mark Thomas’s systematic 90 minute deconstruction of the machinations of a petrochemical multinational. But whatever their shtick , comedians should be (and usually are) aware that they are taking their audience somewhere, however happy, sad or dark that place may be. I don’t go to see Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope to be taken to a happy place, and I don’t go to see Michael McIntyre or Patrick Kielty… actually that sentence ends there.

I believe comedians, like all artists, should take some responsibility for where their journey ends. Fare, please, don’t forget the tip.

My timeline this morning was filled with not one but two Twitter furores (Twittores?) about rape jokes. In an LA club, Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh had reportedly replied to a heckle saying rape jokes are never funny by pointing at the heckler and asking “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” In a subsequent, and it must be said half-hearted apology, Tosh claimed it was out of context, adding in the obligatory 140 characters: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”

I’d scarcely caught up with that story when I heard the rumblings of a new Twitterstorm, this time with Richard Herring at the eye. Wait a minute… Richard Herring? Richard Herring? The impeccably PC, comedic scourge of discrimination and prejudice has made a rape joke? Really?

Well, to be accurate, Richard Herring had made a not-rape joke. In an interview with the Metro paper, he recalled a put-down he’d once used against an annoyingly loquacious heckler: “You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub,” he’d said. What Herring meant, as he attempted vainly to explain to his Twitter followers, was that Rohypnol would be a handy way to shut the heckler up. The way it was understood, by at least some of his detractors, was ‘You’re so ugly you couldn’t even get raped.’ To return to our analogy, cabbie Herring intended to take his passengers to the station, but took a wrong turn and dumped them in the canal. I despise the modern trend of the ritual public apology but I’d like to believe, at least in private, Richard is thinking: “whoops.”

One of my favourite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called “If Websites were people” and in particular their delicious skewering of fauxminist magazine Jezebel. One of the best moments shows the Jezebel character in a restaurant. Her date says “I’m starving” and she eyes him suspiciously: “was that a rape joke?” she asks. Despite being genuinely concerned about humour which makes light of rape, or which trivialises or mocks the experience of victims, I’m also concerned about the McCarthyite zeal with which the evil rape joke is hunted down and its author persecuted into repentance and contrition.

I was in a comedy club just last week, and my favourite act by far was young and (I hope) rising pottymouth comedian. In her set, she made a joke about being fistfucked in her sleep by a violent, butch lesbian bully. I won’t reveal the punchline, because I think you should go see her for yourself if you can. Suffice to say I laughed like a howler monkey, and so did the entire room around me. I’d lay long odds that the South Manchester audience was 90% educated, leftish, pro-feminist Guardian readers, but how many got up from their seats in disgust, or booed or hissed or heckled? Precisely none. I doubt any of us stopped to think, hey, was that a rape joke? The answer, unlike Richard Herring’s effort, was an unquestionable yes, but we were too busy laughing to notice.

Context matters, not just in the intention but in the comprehension. You could grade rape jokes in order of acceptability according to who is being raped, who is doing the raping, and who is telling the joke: man; woman; victim; rapist.

One of the clichés of this debate is that the question should not be ‘is it offensive’ but ‘is it funny.’ I don’t think that is enough. From a moral and political view, it is not just whether the joke is funny, but where the humour takes us. The comedian I saw last week didn’t take her audience anywhere they weren’t happy to visit. Richard Herring took his somewhere that neither he nor most of his audience intended to go. Daniel Tosh, on the other hand, appears to have known exactly where he was going: he was using the cultural power of rape to take his audience, and a specified target in particular, into a slightly more fearful, hate-filled, uncomfortable world. For what my opinions are worth, I find that pretty loathsome.

All artists, in whatever medium, should be aware of their own responsibilities, but their primary responsibility is to their own art and their own consciences. It makes no more sense to me to argue that a comedian should never mention rape than it would to argue that a novelist should do the same. Comedy is an appropriate vehicle for any issue, but that doesn’t mean any joke is appropriate. In attempting to witch-hunt rape jokes out of existence, feminists risk stifling a popular medium, on a vitally important topic. I believe, reluctantly, that artists of all stripes need to be free to make the world a darker, nastier place with their writing, their work or their performance, but they should also be prepared to accept the inevitable response. Whether the topic is rape, dead babies or skipping to the supermarket, a joke is never just a joke – it’s a journey.

Epilogue

When I wrote and published this, I hadn’t quite anticipated just how big the Tosh story was going to get. It seems every man, woman and dog has now stated their piece about the case, with many good points along the way. In among the piles of pixels, there were two pieces in particular I saw which stood out for me. Lindy West again proved herself the jewel in Jezebel’s purse with How To Make A Rape Joke   – which manages to be not only insightful but funny (see, it can be done) while poet/rapper El Guante cuts right to the heart of the issue in his blog here.  Go see.

 

QUICK UPDATE

I’ve had a message from the comedian I was praising in the original edit of this article. She’s just got a new day job and has asked me to take her name off this. I’ve left the content in, but edited out her name. Hope no harm has been done and very much hope she doesn’t give up the night job!

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I am not the most dedicated gamer of my generation. I never owned a Pong machine or a Gameboy, a ZX Spectrum or a SNES. I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. My only engagement with an XBox is the occasional attempt to prise my 10 year old son away from Minecraft, an experience roughly akin to dragging a hippie raver out of a K-hole. The closest I’ve come to pixellated sexual violence against women has been blasting a red shell up Princess Peach’s exhaust pipe on MarioKart.

So I don’t have much in the way of informed opinions about misogyny in video games, I’ll leave that to others. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the debate surrounding Kickstarter Anita Sarkeesian, as good an illustration as we’ll ever need of the vitriol of the new gender wars. An intense storm of hatred was roused by her modest idea to crowd-fund research into sexism in the games industry. The many thousands of hostile comments posted on Sarkeesian’s YouTube video were of course heavily gendered and sexualised, but so too was some of the retaliation – notably Charlie Brooker’s description of the mob as “idiotic pebbledicks” who are terrified of women.

If one of the worst offences committed by sexists and anti-feminists online is to reduce women and their opinions to their genitalia and sexual worth, I’m not sure how the cause is helped by turning the precise same missiles around and hurling them back in the other direction – however deserving of mockery and disgust the targets might be.  Without doubt, the hate-fest directed at Sarkeesian was repellent and indefensible. It was a display of the madness of crowds which would have come as no surprise to Mackay or Le Bon (Gustave, that is, not Simon.) There were a few sane voices raised in defence of the gaming culture, and a few reasonable points made about creative freedom and the demands of the free market. But such comments were few and far between, and lost in a swamp of ugly abuse.

In all the online articles and commentary that appeared, a point recurred that this phenomenon is an inevitable price of freedom. If we grant free expression, we also grant freedom to abuse, insult and offend. It’s a seductive argument, with a lot of merit. Offence is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and there has never been an opinion of value which didn’t cause offence to someone. But just as my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your right to not be punched in the face, so my right to freedom of speech does not extend to the point where it silences others.

Let there be no doubt, the hate campaign waged against Anita Sarkeesian was a concerted attempt to silence her voice, using intimidation and psychological warfare. The misogyny expressed may have been rooted deep in the personalities of her antagonists, but in most cases I doubt it. Instead I suspect it was instrumental, using vocabulary consciously chosen to wound as deeply as possible, and aimed at the (assumed) weak points of a woman and a feminist.

This boot can sometimes be on the other foot. While there is no direct symmetry, we have seen the same principle at play in the concerted attempts of some feminists (mostly, but not entirely historic) to stifle debate about male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence, with activists, writers and academics being branded misogynists and abusers for even raising the issues. Anyone who dares to raise a sceptical voice in many feminist blog spaces can expect more aggression and abuse than reasoned debate. The urge to silence opponents is probably a human one, and for that reason it is all the more important we are conscious of it in ourselves and wary of it in others.

Those who participate in online hate campaigns are not the champions of freedom of speech, but its worst enemies. If they consider themselves libertarians, they are a disgrace to the label. It is not easy to see the solution. Censorship is never the answer, far too many babies go out with the filthy bathwater. Nor do I want to see our prisons filled with hot-headed flamers and trolls.

All we can do is be wise to the nature of these online flame wars, and be prepared to challenge abusive, insulting, silencing behaviour wherever it emerges; be prepared to confront bullies and mob mentality wherever they arise.

We can do that by questioning what they pack in their politics, not what they pack in their pants.

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