On a recent post, I received some surprising feedback, which made me think about the whole point of talking about feminism. A commenter, herself a feminist, advised me that there was no point in discussing gender injustice with men, since it wasn’t possible any man didn’t already know about it. Given the widespread injustices women face – the pay gap, casual sexism, the high levels of sexual assault and the low levels of legal convictions – no man could be living in our society without being aware that the women around him were subject to regular and serious discrimination.
This gave me some pause for thought, since a lot of my writing involves assuming that most men don’t know about these issues. Certainly my own awareness of gender injustice has been growing for the last ten years or so, and involved lots of moments when a woman explained how drastically different the world looked from their point of view. On a sunny afternoon in a pub, a college friend casually mentioned that she’d have to detour on her way to the library, to avoid getting harassed whilst cycling. Whilst reminiscing about a ball, another happened to refer to the informal system of “checking in” with each other, to make sure everyone was OK and wasn’t trying to get out of a situation they had found themselves in.
These were all the more powerful because neither were trying to make a polemical point about gender issues, nor did they start with the intention of explaining to me what I had overlooked. This was just part of life to them, and it made me seriously wonder about how many of my memories involved an entirely fragmentary understanding of what had happened. The sandstone street on the way to the bookstacks, the quad lit with paper lanterns: these were both places I thought of fondly, and which had apparently involved very different meanings and associations for some of my friends.
Perhaps the most striking example of this “double vision” happened late last year, as my wife and I were sitting in a cocktail bar, idly watching the people pass by on the street outside. It was a busy Friday night, and an outcry went up as a young women dashed down the road with her top pulled down, waving a bottle of beer. I remarked in surprise, then turned back to my drink, to find my wife was still looking at the street. After another couple of second, she turned back as well, remarking “Just checking.” I asked her what she meant. “Oh, you probably missed that.” “Missed what?” “You and the guys in this bar were looking at her. The women and I were looking behind her, to see who she was running away from. Turns out it was no-one.”
Again, that chilling sensation that I didn’t understand the world around me as well as I thought I did, and that I was blithely looking past dangers and oppressions which other people were facing almost continually. That’s why I was surprised to be told that men already know how women face sexism and misogyny. In my experience, they don’t – and even if they understand in the abstract that women face structural disadvantages, it doesn’t always translate into shifting our sense of everyday situations.
On the other hand, it’s not as if men are incapable of seeing what’s going on around us, and to that extent the commenter’s remarks made a lot of sense. When men listen to women giving accounts of their experience (whether in novels, drama, non-fiction or conversation) and explaining the social conditions under which sexism is normalized, they are capable of re-reading the world and their interactions within it. Indeed, given the serious gender injustices, it’s worth asking how much near-deliberate not-knowing is involved in carrying on as if men and women are treated fairly in our society.
Given the financial, social and emotional pay-off to believing that our world is fair, is there a large unacknowledged area which men generally choose, on whatever level, to look away from? To not think too hard about whether the female candidates for the job were as well qualified but less able to fit in instantly with the image of the company. To not notice the way the morning commute is papered with images on newspapers, magazines and billboards which arrange women to look pleasing for the heterosexual male gaze. To find it irritating that the girls faff around when you want to get to the club, whilst not noticing how much more preparation they have to undertake to look socially acceptable on a night out.
So maybe that commentator was right, and most men actually do know, on some level, that the society and the institutions they inhabit are drastically skewed in favour of them for being men. Perhaps there’s a awful lot of not-quite-deliberate ignoring what we know for the sake of a quiet and more enjoyable life. That would certainly explain the hostility which women meet when they begin to point these issues out, whether in public or in friendship groups. That hostility might be the result of an awareness that they’re right, coupled with a vague sense of the implications of them being right.
But I’m not sure that means it’s pointless to talk to men about gender injustice. I hope it isn’t, anyway. I’d love to hear from readers, though: do you have experiences of men being genuinely unaware of what life is like for the women around them – or are you more inclined to think that they know but choose to look away? Is there a level of cognitive dissonance going on in the heads of men in our society?