People have been asking to write about men and feminism, and for weeks I have been trying to put my thoughts down in something approaching a logical and consistent order. Then, today, I read Cath Elliot’s latest piece for Comment is Free – on sexual bullying of girls at school – and it all clicked into place.
But Cath’s article only tells a part of the truth, and sometimes a half-truth can be cripplingly misleading. I don’t remember school as an environment where the boys lorded it around without a care in the world and the girls squeaked in corners hoping not to be felt up. In fact, as I recall, bloody all of us were terrified nearly all of the time. Most pupils of both sexes were learning what violence meant, which was power, and what power meant, which was sex. And everyone, whatever their sex, gender and orientation, lived with the fear of being declared not quite right – not girly enough, not manly enough, gay. School is where those rules of gender, power and violence were laid down, and it was a game ultimately won by nobody.
Sexual bullying in particular happens across the board in schools, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with romance. It’s perpetrated by boys against girls, but also against other boys, and in rare cases girls are even the aggressors themselves, and in every case it’s about asserting power over the victim, about laying down rules of dominance and submission. Moreover, male violence is a more constant and immediate threat for boys at school than it is for girls, as a recent study by antibullying.net shows: 90% of school-age boys reported being bullied mostly or mainly by other boys, compared to 29% of girls. In Brighton and Hove, attacks on boys account for 75% of violent incidents in school. So, in a childhood world where sexual and physical violence profoundly affect children of all sexes in school, is violent bullying still a gender issue?
Of course it is. Violence– whether sexual, physical or both – is almost always gendered, and remains gendered throughout adulthood, because it is about power, and gender as constructed by patriarchal society has always been about power. That’s why rape is always a violent act, the opposite of romance. Sexual and physical violence has been ingrained as a method of asserting a primitive idea of ‘masculinity’ and of patriarchal might for as long as nations have relied on having expendable, damaged, violent young men to send off to war at a moment’s notice. For all our talk of civilisation, we remain an intensely divided, primitive and warlike society – and we will continue to do so as long as our young men grow up learning that every other punch goes unpunished, every other verbal assault unremarked, as long as they grow up learning that instead of becoming whole human beings, they have to learn to fight. We will continue to be uncivilised whilst the schoolyard remains the place where, as their parents and teachers look on, a violent policing of gender, sexual and power norms is beaten into every child with fists and words, a message handed down through the generations that this is the way it goes and the proper reaction is to be a big girl/ be a man and suck it up.
Most men are not violent, but when violence happens, it is mostly perpetrated by men. That is not a statement about the inherent character of half the people on the planet, any more than it is to say: most women are not designed by nature to be domestic slaves, but when domestic slavery happens, it usually happens to women. These things are not native to us. The statement that we were not put on this planet to be either passive homemaking childcare-dispensers or vicious inhumane soldiers is a simple one, but one which runs counter to at least two thousand years’ worth of socio-cultural indoctrination.
This culture has been achingly slow to even begin to let go of the archetype of masculinity bred from the archaic notion that whilst the female body is sacrosanct or profane- to be used and controlled – the male body is fundamentally dispensible. Women across the world remain unaware of the extent to which the Western model of masculinity is damaging – partly because we ourselves have spent way too long trying to emulate it.
In reacting against the artificial prison of Western womanhood, liberated women have turned against their former masters with all the righteous rage of escaping slaves, not realising that they too are indentured. A crucial mistake that continues to be made is the fallacy that the fact that men are also worked over by their gender somehow invalidates the whole concept behind feminism. It does not. Pointing out that the slavemaster is a slave too does not excuse the fact that he used the whip, but it does explain it – and it does not mean that he deserves his freedom any less. However, across the debate sphere for decades the cry ‘but men don’t have it easy either’ has been assumed as a direct attack on feminism – and sometimes it has even been meant as one. Otherwise perfectly intelligent commentators descend into petty fights over whose gender oppression trumps whose, not realising that everyone’s gender oppression is equally valid, not understanding that the expression of someone’s struggle is not an attack on everyone else’s.
Recent decades have seen the dissolution of the gender liberation movement into in-fighting, with men and women attacking each other as if each were somehow to blame for the other’s lot in life. Men have remained unreconstructed, in the truest sense of that term, whilst women have gone on to socially evolve beyond recognition in the space of thirty years. Instead of claiming their own reconstruction in tandem, men have reacted at the shock of having the ability to define themselves against women taken away. Feminists have reacted against that backlash in turn, and the whole thing has descended to wary stalemate, neither side trusting the other enough to put their weapons down and start drawing up a peace treaty.
If we are truly to leave gender fascism behind, we cannot allow ourselves to think in binaries – men and women, boys and girls, us and them. If we are to be liberated, then we must all be liberated, together: there can be noone left behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is already moving to force us to the negotiating table, as the information age makes division of work by gender less and less logical and traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity belong increasingly to the past.
So what I hope for is a new kind of feminism – one that recognises that it is not only about liberating biological women from the constraints and indignities associated with their sex, but about liberating all human people from the cruelties and limitations imposed on them by their gender. It is still fem.in.ism because it is about the exaltation and expression of ‘femininity’, but equally about re-imagining what masculinity and femininity signify. Women’s battles are at the heart of the movement, but they are part of the gender struggles of all human beings. We have to recognise that the spectrum of gender prejudice extends into everyone’s lives and places limitations on all of us. We must see that when a young boy in boarding school faces daily sexual and physical violence for not being ‘masculine’ enough, when a girl on a sink estate finds herself on the wrong end of the postcode lottery when she tries to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, when a woman is fired from a senior boardroom position after her maternity leave, when a young man is sentenced to years in prison for membership of a violent street gang whose excesses provide the only positive enforcement he has ever known, those cruelties stem from the same source, and they must be considered together.
The best term for what is perpetrated by patriarchal cultural mores is not misogyny nor even organised sexism, but gender fascism. Fascism in its most literal sense, in its etymological notion of the fasces, the ordered bundle, everything in its proper, pre-ordained and rigidly socially determined place. Ladies, gentlemen and everyone else in attendance: gender fascism is what we need to set ourselves against. And that is why – yes, Julie – we are all feminists are queer allies, every drag queen and transman and every nightclub queer and every straight conformist male living a life of quiet desperation and every person trying to live their live as a complete human being is a feminist ally who sets themselves against gender feminism, or if they aren’t, they bloody should be. Who’s with me?