Archive for the ‘Misogyny’ Category

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.


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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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.


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.



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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