My original piece on the BBC TV documentary ‘Blurred Lines’ was intended as a counter to the show, which was incredibly biased and one sided with only two, half-hearted opposing views being presented. This article is intended to be a more balanced examination of some of the issues presented in the show.
The central issue presented by the show is to claim that we’re in a new era of misogyny and sexism, made worse by the media, culture and – in particular – the internet.
To determine whether this is true or not, we first need to understand what is meant by ‘misogyny’ and ‘sexism’.
What is Misogyny?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines misogyny as:
Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.
Feminism has its own definition – or definitions – of misogyny as it does with other terms. There doesn’t seem to be any particular, overall agreement on the term but it does seem to go beyond the commonly understood meaning from the OED.
Commonly referenced in online debates and arguments the Finally Feminism 101 blog describes misogyny more broadly as:
Misogyny is a… more personal and emotional prejudice, resulting in contempt, scorn and dismissiveness towards women who step outside the bounds sexism lays down as appropriate. Misogynistic anger openly displayed against women who challenge their sexist preconceptions is part of an intimidatory silencing tactics arsenal, and of course the perpetrators don’t display those tactics against women who stay within the notional boundaries – approval is the reward for behaving appropriately.
What is Sexism?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sexism as:
Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
Again, feminism has its own definition. Unlike misogyny’s feminist definition, the sexism definition is fairly consistent and is also found in arenas like racial discrimination. Within feminism, sexism is defined as:
Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.
This definition has come in for considerable criticism as it excludes sexism from women towards men, and has been used to excuse prejudice and bigotry towards men, but in this context that’s not especially relevant.
How can we examine this claim?
How can we hope to quantify something as subjective as misogyny or sexism? It’s a very challenging question to try and answer but we can make a few safe assumptions that might allow us to examine, at least, the truth of the claim that things are getting worse and – if they are – where the blame might possibly lie.
If misogyny has gotten worse, if sexism has gotten worse, we might well expect indicators stemming from that spread in various measures of gender equality, sex crime and similar concerns. We do have statistics on these factors that we can examine and, while methodologies have changed over time, some have remained the same for long periods of time.
So, are things Worse?
By any objective measure the situation for women has not gotten worse.
- The World Economic Forum lists the United Kingdom as being 18th out of 136 countries in terms of gender equality, improving from a score of 0.7365 in 2006 to 0.7440 in 2013.
- According to the British Crime Survey (chapter 4 Intimate personal violence and domestic abuse) sexual assault (against women) has dropped by around 1% since 2005 and domestic violence and stalking (against women) has dropped by 2.5% since 2005.
- This is part of a longer term trend which has been noted across western countries, showing that sex crimes have nosedived since the 1990s. (The correlation of this to access to online pornography is well covered in Freakonomics and A Billion Wicked Thoughts).
Whatever the case when it comes to the subjective experience of misogyny and sexism, the statistics simply don’t support a conclusion that things are getting worse for women. It would be my suspicion that rather than things getting worse we are seeing a higher degree of sensitivity and an ongoing clash of gender influenced behaviour and expectations as we adjust to a wired-up world.
A Fundamental Problem
The assumption of misogyny on the part of trolls, smack-talking online game players, singing sports teams and off-colour comedians is not a safe assumption. Expression is not, necessarily, an indicator of true values.
You can think of much of this, but especially the trolling and smack talking, as being akin to acting. The Swiss actor, Bruno Ganz, played Hitler, but nobody would make the immediate presumption that he was a Nazi simply because he played the part.
When it comes to trolls and smack-talking in online games the motivation is similar. In both instances the person is trying to get a rise. Amongst trolls the reaction and distress is what they are after while in online games they are seeking to make their opponent upset in order to gain advantage or to cause them to quit.
This has been known for some time and it isn’t to say that trolling isn’t problematic but, rather that thinking a troll is genuinely misogynistic or sexist and to take it seriously on that basis is to misdiagnose the problem. Trolls are, often, sadistic, psychopathic or sociopathic but that is no indicator of any views whatsoever.
We’ve had all this straight from the horse’s mouth before. Trolls are perfectly willing to explain why they do what they do and genuinely holding misogynistic or other nasty views doesn’t seem to rate mention.
Since trolling first emerged as a recognisible phenomenon on Usenet the received wisdom has been ‘Don’t feed the trolls’. The trolls want attention, want a reaction and the bigger the reaction the better, if you deny them that reaction they go away. That has been true and it has been the only way to deal with the problem and preserve the value of internet anonymity and security.
So what has changed? Why are the Criado-Perezs, Suey Parks and Anita Sarkeesian’s of this world suddenly playing up the trolling and treating it seriously?
Criado-Perez’s profile and cause was advanced by taking the trolling seriously, it got her a great deal of attention, media appearances, sympathy and social and political capital to spend on her activism. Same for Suey Park.
Sarkeesian made $160,000 off the back of it, along with awards and becoming the go-to spokeswoman for women in gaming despite being revealed as a fraud, a thief (more than once) and being linked to exploitative junk science (handwriting analysis) and pyramid schemes. Being able to point at trolls and act as though they were serious allows her to deflect attention from these problems and to ignore the wealth of, in depth, legitimate criticism of her analysis and positions, to block comments on her videos and even to ignore people asking where she’s spent the money.
Nor has the vehement reaction to Sarkeesian been unique and nor is it gendered. Much has been made of the cheap and nasty flash game someone made where you could slap Sarkeesian around and the abuse she had gotten, but those with a memory may remember another person who attacked the gaming culture, Jack Thompson, getting virtually identical treatment.
There’s at least one study that shows men suffer as many threats and as much abuse online (or more), but it’s telling that I had huge trouble finding it due to the way in which the Google search terms are completely flooded with the singular concern over the threats made towards women online. Ditch the Label also found the bullying was equal, not directed especially at women.
Why Might Men be Resentful?
I think the above, in which I’ve striven to support my assertions and to present a more balanced view than the previous article demonstrates that what is going on is not what is being assumed by activists are two different things. If we can properly identify what is going on without the pre-existing assumptions we may be able to figure out ways to cope with or address the issues as they actually are.
Is there any legitimacy to the claims that men – or at least many men – are resentful, angry or upset?
There, I think, there are some things to be considered, but the existing feminism dominated paradigm is too fixated on the idea that men are bad and that everything is their fault. The problems men face aren’t taken seriously and these kinds of anti-male accusations end up contributing to the problem rather than helping to solve anything.
If men are feeling disaffected and besieged, it does not mean that they’re afraid or angry because their supposed privilege and power is being eroded. It can be – and I think is – down to genuine inequality, unfairness and the loss of respect and rights without a commensurate reduction in responsibilities.
What we have at the moment needs to be replaced with a genuine, properly informed dialogue that takes in both sides.