‘You say you had your breast groped,’ began the email. I received it some days after mentioning in a column that a man I didn’t know had touched my breast while I was eating dinner in a restaurant. The email continued:
The incident is obviously clear in your mind and the reason must be breast groping has been a very rare occurrence in your life.
When I was a teenager in Britain in the 1960’s such an incident would not be so clear in the mind of the average young woman (or some of the older ones) because a friendly squeeze of a breast or two was as common as a handshake and often delivered for the same reason as a handshake might be engaged in, in an informal social gathering to a casual acquaintance. A few women were upset by this but a surprising number weren’t, depending how the squeeze was delivered. Regardless of this most men who would give a breast a friendly tweak were also very protective of women and as long they were sober, well mannered.
How times have changed. Women’s liberation has made a friendly grope none-PC [sic] but it has also been a significant factor in the way society has developed; often for the worse.
I read the email aloud and it drew a jolly response from my colleagues. We’re so used to the predictable ensemble of insults and justifications women attract when we dare to demand autonomy over our own bodies that the most we can normally muster is a deep sigh and a shrug. But this email was different. I was stunned at what I perceived to be the emailer’s total lack of self-awareness and this took on a tone of hilarity.
This email could not be filed under the normal tick-a-box offence of feminism (which goes like this: Women are sexist too! Another rant from lefty feminazis with no sense of humour; Anyway, you’re ugly; No-one would want to rape you; I’m going to rape you and kill you; #notallmen).
My hilarity was bordering on hysteria as I tweeted parts of the email, saying: ‘A man has kindly emailed me to mansplain why i shouldn’t be offended that my breast was groped.’ It was then that the predictable ad hominem responses rolled in, including: ‘can I please have your life so this can be my biggest problem? Really?’; ‘No one wants to squeeze anything having to do with you. Your [sic] exaggerating … Again’; ‘This “woman” will not be happy until every last female hates every last WM [white man] on earth, & everyone’s miserable like her’; and a series of tweets from a man who said it was just ‘so god damn annoying’ that women have to draw attention to themselves when something bad happens to them. While most responses from men were horrified and apologetic and the abuse was a definite minority response, a fair few took umbrage with my use of the word ‘mansplain’, claiming the word itself is sexist (towards men—something I would argue is an impossibility). Then I got this tweet:
you shouldn’t say “mansplaining” it doesn’t represent all men.
how’d you like it if I said “womansplaining”
also capitalize I.
It had everything—a complaint about ‘mansplain’, the familiar refrain of #notallmen that gets wheeled out every time the patriarchy is criticised, and a grammar correction. What a winner, I thought, and retweeted it immediately. I broke my rule of not engaging with nonsense and replied, asking if he did not see the irony in the tweet, to which he responded:
I don’t think we should use the word irony. How do you think iron workers feel? Especially since there’s so many out of work
Only then did I realise he was joking. I checked his bio—he was a comedian. By that time, my retweet had been retweeted. Women were indignant. When I duly pointed out the tweet was a joke, we all shook our heads. This is how bad it is—we can’t tell a joke from the truth. His response was so on point (for a men’s rights activist), it was hard to know it was a joke. Was it true that I was a man-hating, humourless lesbian intent on making every last white man on earth miserable? I tried to ‘lighten up’, so when I got a tweet that read:
>writes for .@guardian
>Uses sexist language ‘manspalining’
Is dead inside w/ all that hatred of men. ‘>
I replied with a photo of some flowers my boyfriend had given me, as a way to explain that I was neither dead inside nor an irrational man hater. He replied, ‘cake would’ve been preferable?’ To which, yes, I involuntarily laughed and told him so. He replied again: ‘a feminist w a sense of humor? Color me impressed!’
I enjoyed a brief moment where I thought I’d had a breakthrough—I’d made one man see! For the next … I don’t know, ten seconds … I basked in the glory of breaking down barriers. Once this man saw me, on Twitter, as a feminist with a sense of humour, would he also start to see all the structures that keep women in their place? Would it now be impossible for him to unsee systemic sexism?
But I already knew I could not win that game. It is of course entirely possible to ignore the structures that oppress and discriminate against women—we’ve been doing it very effectively for centuries, and with particular determination since the 1970s when second-wave feminism drew popular attention to issues such as unequal pay, workplace harassment and reproductive rights.
It has long been observed how inventive patriarchy is in dreaming up new ways for women to blame themselves for their oppression. The accusation of humourlessness has been an effective one in silencing women. I never thought of myself as a person who would succumb to that pressure.
And yet this is where I find myself—half the time laughing at men’s sexist comments and hysterical accusations and half the time ignoring them or advising other female writers to do the same. Perhaps the temptation to laugh at or ignore online abuse is just another way to fortify the patriarchy? If so, I’ve been a master player at that game. I can admit that I don’t want to be seen as a woman without a sense of humour. Nor do I want to spend my life angry. But when you’ve received the same comment about the same point so many times it loses its sharpness. The insults and accusations become blunt. But blunt force can hurt too.
In trying to grapple with online abuse—not just against women but in all its forms—the Guardian recently analysed 70 million comments that had been left on the site since 1999. As the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Kath Viner summarised:
The stark results offer proof of what many have long suspected: of the 10 regular writers whose articles have had the most comments blocked, eight are women (four white and four non-white, one Muslim and one Jewish) and two are black men. Three of the 10 most abused writers are gay.
Jessica Valenti is one of the Guardian writers whose articles receive the greatest number of blocked comments. This is how she described the treatment: ‘Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying “You’re stupid”, “You’re terrible”, “You suck”, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”. It’s a terrible way to go to work.’*
And the effect is undoubtedly censorious. As much as I hate to admit it, I have occasionally decided against writing about sexism simply because I didn’t feel strong enough to face the abuse that day.
In her new memoir, Sex Object, Valenti explains that laughing off street harassment was a strategy handed down to her from her mother and aunts. ‘Pretending that these offences roll off our backs is strategic—don’t give them the satisfaction—but it isn’t the truth,’ she writes. ‘You lose something along the way. Mocking the men who hurt us, as mockable as they are, starts to feel like acquiescing to the most condescending of catcalls: ‘You look better when you smile.’
Could it be that my response of hysterical laughter at that email was an instinct I’ve developed to mask the fear of facing what those comments represent?
‘We know that direct violence causes trauma,’ Valenti writes. ‘We know that children who live in violent neighbourhoods are more likely to develop PTSD. Yet we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.’
My special correspondent concluded his missive like this:
I would speculate, while you probably didn’t invite the man to grope your breast and while you probably didn’t enjoy the experience, there is no dismissing of the fact that man was probably the most honest person in the room (unless he was drunk).
There is always more than one way of looking at things.
What can this email possibly be but from a man who has grown up in a world that hates women? How can he defend a man’s right to touch the body of an unknown woman without her consent unless he thinks a man’s desire is worth more than a woman’s comfort?
It had become my instinct to laugh, and I did, and then I ridiculed the correspondent by tweeting his words. But the men who hold these views don’t deserve to be ridiculed. They deserve to be taken on.
Right at the heart of the problem lies this trap: men tend to believe their opinions are facts; women tend to undervalue and second-guess theirs. This social conditioning deepens the problem of online abuse towards women: men want to correct women who write, women doubt themselves when corrected. Women are also conditioned not to trust the opinions of other women.
And that’s why we arrive here, where we should always arrive in feminist debate: with the conclusion that online abuse can’t be tackled as an individual problem, or a unique occurrence, and it can’t be tackled alone by the women who attract it.
From what I can put together from his email, my correspondent is not a right-wing nutjob. He may be a great guy, with female friends and a fairly liberal outlook. He is no unthinking automaton bleating out responses he’s read online, and his email was not totally without insight. One of the paragraphs I’d skimmed over originally made perhaps the most prescient point of the entire correspondence:
One of the problems of social commentary and articles like yours is the way they magnify small parts of a very wide picture for close examination and in turn bring the focus of the public onto it while ignoring the rest of the picture and the history and reasons why the picture looks the way it does. Taking something out of context is what jornalists [sic] and politicians have been doing forever, focusing efforts into putting right whatever small part of the wider picture they find most irritating.
What we do when we focus on the abuse of women online—or when we laugh at the predictable comments we receive and then dismiss them—is to overlook the fact that the society that creates and encourages these beliefs is a deeply flawed one that we need to change. We forget to ask what kind of world could create a person who believes that a man groping the breast of an unknown woman uninvited is not only okay, but makes him the best bloke in the room. We forget to confront honestly how these provocations make us feel as human beings and about our place in society.
‘In this wider picture of ours absolutely nothing is disconnected and nothing can be changed in isolation,’ he wrote.
When you look at these comments in the grand scheme of society, one that creates and nurtures these kinds of beliefs and attitudes, even the most clichéd of them suddenly stop being funny. Or worth ignoring. Then they represent the very structures that we have to dismantle collectively in order to achieve anything even close to equality of opportunity in this world. We might be able to have some fun while doing so, but it is certainly no laughing matter.
* See <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/12/the-dark-side-of-guardian-comments>.
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