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So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.

In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.

While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.

I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me

…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men

Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.

Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.

Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.

However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.

Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.

I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about.  The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.

There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.

Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty  – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.

This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3  is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.

I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.

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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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For previous blogs on this topic, please click here and here.

It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.

One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.

“the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.”

I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.

I’ve already explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of the End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girls don’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world. Hey ho.

In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within feminist circles. You can’t have missed it, and I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.

Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.

“one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.”

I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of Stavvers and many other feminists.

Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.

I’m a white, straight , cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life.  I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’ traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.

I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘white.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.

Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘male’, I have to dodge loads of shit-traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? I very much doubt it, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition.  If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.

Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then heaven help you. You’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.

Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.

So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the  black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.

As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. When I wrote previously that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm was not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, this is precisely what I meant.  If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.

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What can be learned from the now notorious Reddit rape thread? Most of the commenters beneath Megan Carpentier’s CiF article think the answer is nothing – the apparent confessions of rapists and abusers are unverifiable, they (quite rightly) say. Any analysis of their content must be suspect. The conclusions Carpentier draws are built on sand.

Well, I disagree.

As I said in a comment here , I believe most of the Reddit admissions are probably genuine. In browsing them, countless thousands of readers were exposed to the anecdotes about rape that tally strongly with at least 30 years of research into criminology and forensic psychology. Even if every post were pure fiction, the stories they tell are astonishingly true to life.

Despite hundreds of posts of condemnation, any doubts I had about the value of the Reddit thread, and indeed the value in linking to it, evaporated when I read just one post from the commenter gherkingirl. Over many years she has written and blogged with insight, compassion and enormous courage, about her experience as a rape survivor and her own pursuit of justice. In this comment she described her reaction to perhaps the most harrowing and disturbing of all the confessions, which she said could just as easily have been written by the man who first raped her.

“I came away finally seeing that it wasn’t something we victims had done. It wasn’t our hemlines or our flirtatiousness or taking a cab or having another chardonnay. It was because a certain type of man wants to rape.”

She expanded upon the point movingly and eloquently on her own blog:

“For years I’ve known deep down that it wasn’t my fault I was raped. It wasn’t what I was wearing or what I’d been doing, but I’ve always ultimately felt that there is something inside me that makes this violence happen to me. Like a spark on a flint in certain lights, there is something that surfaces and is why I’ve had so many frightening overwhelming experiences with men and been raped twice. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put my finger on it and it’s too painful to ask other people what it might be. But it would explain why men treat me so aggressively while being nothing like it with other women. But reading this comment, for the first time since I was raped, it occurred to me that these assaults aren’t something to do with me. They’re something to do with the type of man who thinks and acts like this.”

One of the most controversial aspects to the rape debate is the attribution of responsibility. We hear it in every discussion on rape – some variation on “of course the rapist is entirely to blame, but women must surely take some responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.”  We see this in the traditional crime prevention advice, issued both through formal channels and bar-room punditry, that focuses on the potential victim and what (usually) she can do to keep herself safe – not walking alone through dark and isolated places; ensuring her drink isn’t spiked; not becoming insensibly intoxicated; or  – at its most notoriously crass “avoid dressing like sluts.” We even saw this applied to children, by a vicar no less, on BBC Question Time in the aftermath of the Rochdale grooming case. “They go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place”

The feminist lexicon describes this as ‘victim-blaming.’ I don’t think that term is helpful. The people issuing these opinions don’t intend to blame the victim, and I’m sure it doesn’t feel like that as they say the words. Consequently they become defensive and angry when it is suggested that they’ve done it. A better phrase would be something like ‘responsibility-shifting.’ These comments shift at least some of the responsibility for preventing the crime from the perpetrator to the victim. Repeated endlessly, as a refrain of popular wisdom and so-called common sense, they inevitably leave many rape victims thinking there must have been something they could have done to have prevented it happening.

The message is damaging to survivors, but perhaps more importantly, it is downright false. The Reddit thread found none of the respondents talking of their victims flaunting their sexuality with miniskirts and boob-tubes, dancing naked on pool tables or shamelessly prick-teasing their attackers according to stereotype. On the contrary, the serial rapist referred to above explained how he selected his victims meticulously by their shy and insecure personality-type, and planned his attacks down to the finest detail of his preferred modus operandi. Others described taking advantage of girls in their sleep, or riding roughshod over the consent limits of their girlfriends or dates. Every one described himself as being in control of his actions, making a conscious decision to rape. There was nothing any of their victims could have been reasonably expected to do that would have prevented the attacks occurring.

The other consequence of shifting responsibility is to portray sexual assault as an inevitability, a fact of nature. Go out without your umbrella and you might get caught in a rain shower, go out in a miniskirt and you might get caught in a rape. There is I think a serious risk that this serves to normalise rape in the minds of rapists. Rather than thinking sexual assault being something done by aberrant, cruel, destructive individuals, it is something done to careless or helpless victims. Of course some rapists with sociopathic tendencies will be indifferent to such concerns, but the Reddit posts reveal others who were racked by indecision, guilt and uncertainty. It might only take such a slight cognitive twist to make some potential rapists think better of their intentions.

There are many other lessons that could be learned from the Reddit thread and subsequent discussion, but this one alone is enough to justify the initial thread, and the articles on CIF and elsewhere. I think Megan Carpentier was wrong to say that the people who need to be educated about rape are our men and boys. It goes deeper than that. It is society – men, women, boys, girls and the intangible strands of our culture that still need to be educated, and if it could learn one lesson it is that responsibility for rapes lies foursquare with rapists, and nowhere else.

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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. But with whom are we agreeing? 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 wrote in support of 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?

UPDATE

By coincidence, the Good Men Project has also run a series this week on men’s place in feminism. There’s an awful lot of talk of transformational journeys and personal healing and the kind of thing that generally makes me reach for the sick-bowl. Sorry Tom, Hugo et al, but I don’t think the arena of gender politics is the best place to work through one’s personal demons and guilt. The series left me no more convinced about the value of the label “feminist”, and less convinced than ever about the label “good men” which is deeply problematic to me. One day I might come back to that.

But within the series, there’s a piece by GMP editor Noah Brand which is, I think, absolutely brilliant. Unlike me, Noah does identify as a feminist, but he does absolutely nail the point that feminism offers a lot to men, not just in terms of practical outcomes but in offering an intellectual toolbox to help us understand and analyse gender issues, and possibly even find some solutions. Go see.

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In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.

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