Article for The Independent, 05/11/2016
Bristol University is fast gaining a reputation for furious debates about gender politics.
This week a first year arts student received a baptism of fire for an article in which he expressed his disdain for the sexual consent workshops he and his hall-mates were made to attend – you can read his argument here.
In the article, the student made clear that he felt the workshops carried a negative message, writing that “the hysterical and statistically wanting speeches to which we were subjected seemed to suggest that any form of virility and male sexual compulsion was a cancer in urgent need of excision, while simultaneously painting every girl in the room as a defenceless weakling of Doris Day proportions.”
When I spoke to the student, who would – unsurprisingly – prefer to remain anonymous, the very first thing he told me was that he proudly calls himself a feminist.
Given the ferocious criticism he has received, he has since penned an apology and conceded that the language he used was ill-advised; but, nonetheless, he believes that he acted correctly as a feminist. So why the explosion of opinion?
Now, let me lay my cards on the table: I very loudly and very proudly call myself a feminist. I believe that women face a deeply unfair disadvantage in our society because of the underlying attitudes that have survived through our history of patriarchy.
As a male student, I tell you I agree with consent classes, and believe that sexual consent education is absolutely vital to positive gender relations, because sex is a topic that our society seems incapable of discussing in any constructive way.
Rape victims so often feel not only that they should not come forward, but that they would be victim-blamed if they did so. The never-ending series of court decisions favouring the aggressor, such as the Brock Turner case in America, seems to confirm this institutionalised victim-blaming. And then, of course, are the psychological problems that result.
So it is firmly with the interests of feminism in my heart that I say that both sides got it wrong here. The student in question suggested that the workshops were being run by “ignorant women” waylaid by “Dragon Tattoo levels of sexual violence”, that girls “cry wolf” over nothing but “drunken fumblings”, that men are “predisposed to respect women”, and that it is “maniacs” who commit rape rather than “rational people”.
All of this is nonsense, as the boy himself has since acknowledged.
But also nonsense is the outrageous criticism he came in for. The pyre of vitriol thrown his way made him out to be a woman-hating bigot with opinions that belong in the 16th Century. And yes, he got it very badly wrong – but burning him like a straw man as if to say ‘this is what happens to the unorthodox’ is not going to convert the unconverted.
This is my fear: that feminism is giving itself a reputation for bigotry and hysteria. I worry that most people do not believe it stands for gender equality, but for feminine supremacy. I worry that most people do not like feminism.
And already I know that by writing this I’m lining myself up for the most unpleasant assaults on social media from people that I fundamentally agree with. Or rather, I agree with the ideas, but I disagree with the method.
Feminism is not a destructive movement, but I worry that to the public at large it seems like it is. This cannot be allowed to be the case.
If we want to achieve our goal of genuine gender democracy then we must act with patience and understanding, rather than the reactionary fury that seems to characterise it. I increasingly see no good for anger in feminism.
Please do not misunderstand me – we have every right to be angry about the injustice women face on a daily basis – but the more it informs our actions, the more we seem to distance ourselves from the majority.
Think of it this way: we want all men and women of every background and stripe to believe gender equality is a good thing.
Do we do this by attacking them for making mistakes, or do we do it by being kind and patient and making them feel that feminism is a natural home for them?
Sarah Redrup, one of the people who wrote a response to the original article, put it this way:
“I will always firmly believe that anger is a tool that feminists have every right to use.
“Decades of suppressing anger from oppressed people has resulted in people thinking anger from them is just irrational and crazy and we should be able to be angry! However, how we use that anger is so important depending on what outcome we want.
“The goal here is to change people’s minds and bring them to our side on this issue, and we can only do that by presenting arguments in an accessible way. Insulting people like this fresher is likely to make them only more entrenched in their views.
Identity movements at the moment live in such a place of anxiety that they feel provoked to lash out whenever they feel threatened. This is not their fault; it is a reflection on the general anxiety and distrust that marks our age.
But ignorance about these issues plagues all of us, so it has to be the identity movements that front up and become more patient and understanding in the face of adversity.
If we don’t do this then we will scare away the people we need to be on our side.