“I’m a feminist, but I don’t hate men or anything…” has a depressingly familiar ring to many people interested in gender issues. The Telegraph recently published an article explaining that demonising men was the wrong way for feminism to proceed, and many discussions on campus I’ve heard over the years involved hurried assurances that being a feminist doesn’t mean you have to think men are evil. Given how feminism is often caricatured in the media, it’s an understandable remark. But, as a man, I don’t feel that feminism hates me. On the contrary, it’s a patriarchal and misogynist society which demonises me, telling everyone I can’t be trusted not to break out into senseless violence without provocation.
Take the issue of sexual assault. Feminists are frequently criticized for believing that “all men are rapists” – a quotation which is attributed to Andrea Dworkin, but which I gather (from those who have read her) Dworkin never wrote. I have never met or read any feminist who said men are naturally rapists, or that sexual assault in an inherent part of masculinity. They point out the epidemic of rape in our culture, explain how misogynist attitudes prevent victims from coming forward or excuse the perpetrator, and try to educate men on sexual consent. None of these involve telling men that they are all rapists. It might be uncomfortable for men to be faced with how much damage their gender does to women, and how society legitimizes male violence and sexual entitlement. To realize that the people who commit these atrocities look and sound exactly like them, that they would fit in with their friends.
But feminists are not calling all men rapists. Quite the contrary. Talking about consent and respect in intimate relationships is based on the assumption that men are morally responsible humans, who have the potential to act ethically. It assumes they are capable of not raping. That might seem a bizarre statement, but in our society it is a fairly radical one. Because and women alike are bombarded with advertising, films and jokes which all assume that men cannot stop themselves sexually assaulting people. That it just happens if you “provoke” it, that women have to take responsibility for rape if they dress or act a certain way, that any man in that situation would…well, would do it, wouldn’t they? Feminism says they wouldn’t. It insists that men have the rational and empathetic potential to listen and learn. It isn’t feminists that think men are slavering beasts incapable of rational or moral reflection. It’s an advertising industry which links sexualized images to power and dominance, men’s magazines which write about how to “get sex” from women, and an educational system which puts up posters telling women to look after each other on nights out, but does nothing to train young men to watch out for toxic behaviour amongst their friends.
On a more quotidian level, feminists didn’t write those tired 1970s jokes about nagging wives and lazy husbands. I’ve never met a feminist who thinks men literally cannot learn to operate a dishwasher or look after children, but I’ve met plenty of men who claim to think so. The “learned helplessness” displayed by executives whose secretaries buy their daughter’s birthday present, or by brothers whose wives have to take care of family gatherings, wasn’t imposed by a feminist society. If men are stereotyped as emotionally hollow and practically incompetent, then this didn’t happen in a society where women earned 20% more and were in charge of the government. In fact, as writers like Deb Cameron have pointed out, there is a pay-off for men in being thought helpless in these matters: it frees up their time and energy for things they enjoy or which will earn them more money and fame. It may be irksome to see yet another sitcom with a father who is emotionally stunted and incapable of taking care of his personal life, but it’s a side-effect of insisting that men naturally equipped to excel in public life. A male-dominated culture invented these ideas and a male-dominated media perpetuates them. Feminism, on the other hand, suggests that men can be equal partners in private and professional life, can look after children and nurture strong relationships with their families. That doesn’t seem a particularly hateful or belittling view of men.
It wasn’t feminism which told men to be insecure about their masculinity and hide it with competitive displays of aggression. If that was feminism’s fault then the movement must have started much earlier than any of us thought: the texts I study and teach can show this happening in the Victorian era, the Renaissance, the Medieval and Classical periods. Feminism doesn’t tell me my deepest self is a ball of hate and rage which needs to be inflicted on someone else to make me a proper man. Nor does it tell me I need to degrade women in order to maintain my own status. I’m told this on a regular basis, admittedly. But the message comes from misogynist movies, novels and TV shows which can only imagine men as damaged, hollow and toxic. Feminism doesn’t hate men, it offers them a better vision of themselves, simply by insisting that all this violence and degradation isn’t the way things are supposed to be. I’ve heard what misogynists think of me, and I’ve heard what feminists think of me. And I know which of those sounds more like hate.