1:51 am - January 10th 2009
People have been asking to write about men and feminism, and today, when I read our own Cath Eliot’s latest article on sexual bullying of girls at school, it all clicked into place.
Because of course, Cath is right. School is where it all starts. School is where girls learn to be sexually frightened of men. School is where girls learn that their bodies are objects of desire over which they do not automatically get sovereignty. And the fact that people are sitting up and taking this seriously can only be applauded.
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.
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.
A crucial mistake that continues to be made is the fallacy that acknowledging male gender oppression somehow invalidates the whole concept behind feminism. It does not. However, across the debate sphere for decades the cry ‘but men don’t have it easy either!’ has been taken 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.
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.
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 feminism, 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. Gender fascism is what all of us – men, women and others, gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual – need to set ourselves against, if we are ever to stop tearing ourselves apart over outdated gender norms.
[A more detailed version of this post is up at Penny Red]
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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