A woman getting tied up and robbed would be, you’d think, a no-brainer when in comes to sympathy; but as I wrote for the Independent on Monday, that’s not been the case for Kim Kardashian, who has been an object of schadenfreude and even glee since the public learned that she was the victim of an armed heist. This morning, Today invited me on to debate this with journalist Celia Walden, and I couldn’t have asked for a clearer example of the attitude I wrote about, with Walden claiming that Kardashian “flaunting” herself led to an “instinctive reaction” of unconcern. Hear me explain what this says about our attitudes to violence against women, and what it has to do wit Donald Trump, on the link below.
It is apparently impossible to discuss even the most commonplace sexism without being reminded that “not all men” are like that. Which seems like a fairly poor response, given that those exceptions, however many they may be – even if they are the majority of men – have not yet managed to end the wage gap, institute equality in housework and caring duties, or prevent two women a week in the UK from being murdered by current or former partners. Not all men are patriarchy incarnate. Not enough men are actively trying to undo the harms of patriarchy for the exceptions to be any kind of riposte to the structural analysis of feminism.
But when it comes to an incident as extreme as Elliot Rodger’s spree-killing of six people in a misogynistic rage at his inability to possess a woman (and he wished to possess, not to love or be loved), the “not all men” reply seems even more redundant than usual. Of course “not all men” are multiple murderers. That would be, at the very least, a numerical impossibility. What it seems to me that people are actually saying in the rush for cavilling nuance about Rodger is: not all misogynists. And again, this is true. Rodger’s actions place him on the far edge of the continuum of hatred for women. He shares a cultural nook with Peter Sutcliffe, the Boston Strangler and Fred West.
The mass killing is an aberration, but the hatred of women is normal – not universal, but tolerated within the general run of human relations. I’ve met men who hate women. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve known socially; several were treated as oddballs or eccentrics to be indulged, but none were regarded as beyond the pale of society. Often, I would coach myself to repress that prickle of fear at the back of my neck that comes from talking to someone who looks at you with obliterating inhumanity, tell myself I was being irrational. Always, I have been repaid for that forbearance with some incident that confirmed my suspicions. I am not saying my spidey sense for misogyny is infallible, just that it’s given me no false positives so far.
Not all misogynists kill several people: some kill just one woman, generally the one they live with. Not all kill: some rape, or commit sexual assaults. Some emotionally terrorise and control their partners. Some bully female colleagues. Some make abusive phone calls and threats to women they deem non-compliant. And all misogyny is part of the mass threat that makes the world less safe for women, and every single person in the world is implicated in misogyny whatever their sex, because the belief that women are a subclass of inferior human is foundational to and endemic within our society.
Take this as a final statement: I know completely that not all misogynists are spree killers. It is self-evident that misogyny is a necessary but not sufficient condition for cases like this to occur, and that sufficiency must include the availability of weapons (a hammer will do) and the existence of particular psychological states. This is obvious. In fact, it is so obvious that I wonder why anyone would think it in any way complicates our understanding of Rodger’s motivation, because none of it alters the fact that misogyny exists and causes violence.
Not all misogynists kill. But all misogyny creates the conditions in which women are killed, raped and abused, and in which women fear being killed, raped or abused. This is not complicated. It is simple, it is deadly, and it is the reason feminism is necessary.
When, exactly, is it OK to talk about gender? Obviously we talk gender all the time, speaking in its tongue, following its script; but when are we allowed to talk about it? A friend decided to tackle a Waterstones manager recently about the fact that every single colouring book in the shop was a gendered one: My First Feminine Mystique Colouring Book for Girls, The Boys’ Colouring Book for Self-Determining Humans, that sort of thing, identify the side you belong to and stay inside the lines.
Don’t you think you’ve got a responsibility to offer more than this to children, asked my friend. Not at all, countered the manager: this is just how boys and girls are. And it ended with the manager accusing my friend of being “on a crusade to change basic biology” – as if a preference for pictures of princesses or cars were a secondary sexual characteristic, like hair distribution or vocal range.
Of course, this is nonsense: children do not just happen to grow up conforming to the social expectations that go with the kind of body they have. They are taught, insistently, with a mix of cajoling, denial, example and punishment that can be more or less explicit but is always ongoing. (In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine describes the efforts of two married researchers to bring up their children without gender stereotypes: even finding a bedtime story became a nightmare of Tippex and careful corrections.)
Any system so embedded must serve a purpose, and there’s a clear hierarchy: man over woman, boy over girl. This isn’t a valuation error whereby femininity has been inadvertently priced lower than masculinity, and we can’t rectify it with a market adjustment that declares “man” and “woman” equal but distinct categories: it’s how gender is supposed to work, a patriarchal innovation that trains boys in activity and girls in passivity to keep the breeding stock in line.
It’s a pro-choice truism that abortion would never be controversial if men got pregnant. This is snappy but sadly nonsensical, because it’s not prejudice against women that makes our reproductive rights so fraught – it’s our femaleness, and a male desire to secure paternity and property against female bodies. Patriarchal gender norms are no more natural or inevitable that motorway networks or out-of-town shopping centres. We’ve invented this system, and we can invent another; but in order to change anything, we have to acknowledge the need to change by seeing ourselves as we are. And increasingly, the language that would let us do that is being silenced.
When the Child Commissioner’s report into “child on child abuse” was published last year, there was much justified distress at the acts of sexual violence and coercion described. But as Sian Norris points out, what this summary of the report didn’t tell readers was that the children being assaulted are overwhelmingly girls, and the children doing the assaulting are even more overwhelmingly boys. The same goes for murder: Karen Ingala Smith has been campaigning since the beginning of 2012 for the killings of women by men to be recorded in official Home Office statistics.
Currently, the Home Office records and publishes data on the sex of victims of homicide and their relationship to their killer. What it doesn’t do is publish information on the sex of the murderers – and this conceals the fact that the people who kill women are overwhelmingly men. We know, with a kind of dull acceptance of horror, that two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner, but what we don’t identify is the way that masculine contempt for women and desire to control women is practised with fatal results.
In the same way that the pretence of “not seeing race” allows racism to flourish unexamined, a refusal to acknowledge gender creates a warm pocket in which misogyny can multiply. The leaked Amnesty consultation document on prostitution is a good example of this. This document is explicitly designed to avoid any discussion of gendered power – the introduction informs the reader that the term “sex worker” has been chosen and is “intended to be gender neutral”. But the sex industry is not gender neutral: those who are hired for sex are overwhelmingly women, those doing the hiring are even more overwhelmingly men, and this in a world where (according to the World Bank) women own just 1% of all wealth. [Update 10 February 2014: see this comment for better quality measures of women’s access to capital and power.]
Amnesty may counter that this is an attempt to establish a universal principle rather than a gendered analysis, but what good is a universal principle when the difference of sex is at the very centre of the transaction? The material fact of the body and the social fact of gender both persist, however much one would like to cleanse them from the analysis. And some people would like to cleanse them very much. Disastrously, there are even efforts to purge gender from the language of reproductive rights under the guise of making services more accessible to trans people.
The US organisations Planned Parenthood and NARAL and the UK campaign Education for Choice have all recently given support to a petition calling on reproductive rights organisations to be “pro-trans pro-choice”. But there are few specifics on what a pro-trans pro-choice position would look like in practice, and where one has been attempted, the results create a vertiginous disconnect between the politics of reproduction and the bodies these operate on.
For example, the New York Abortion Access Fund’s values statement, now meticulously drafted to include people of all genders who may need the Fund’s support, opens with a strikingly clumsy piece of phrasing: “The New York Abortion Access Fund believes that every person should be able to determine their own reproductive destiny…” The unintended implications of this formulation are frankly dangerous to abortion rights.
Curtly, every “person” does not have the right to control their reproductive destiny: the men who impregnate women, for example, do not get to be the ultimate arbiters of whether that pregnancy is carried to term. And so one of the key insights of feminism is lost in a swamp of good intentions.
One might think that strictly biological language could offer an escape from such ambiguities, but apparently not: a Texas fundraiser called A Night of a Thousand Vaginas was criticised for its use of the V word by some trans activists, who claimed that it was alienating to trans men. Yet simultaneously in the UK, anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali receives vicious abuse accusing her of propagating a “cunt-obsessed culture” because of her work protecting girls from genital mutilation. A woman who claims the right to name and control her female body is still an insurrectionist, and our rebellion is not so advanced that we can afford to surrender any gains.
For those whose sex is misaligned with their sense of their own gender, I have sympathy and sisterhood. Trans women are no threat to feminism, they suffer the sexism that hurts every woman, and they have their share in this fight. But to fight sexism, we must understand that gender is a system of policing female bodies: transgender individuals bravely defy patriarchy’s absurd limitations (and often at the personal cost of horrendous stigma), but they cannot undo patriarchy simply by the force of their own exceptionalism.
We need to talk about what “man” and “woman” mean, and scrutinise the imperfect but profound association between those categories and the male and female humans they respectively act on. Feminism can never be gender neutral, because it is the corrective to a world with a manifest gender bias – albeit a bias that we would rather not acknowledge, even when women are killed by men, even when girls are raped by boys, even when women trade access to their bodies for money while men have the disposable income to pay for an orgasm. We need to talk about gender.