In Defence of ‘Misogyny Overheard’

A new Facebook group has been the source of controversy and discussion in the last few weeks. Bethan McKernan, a final year student at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, set up ‘Misogyny Overheard at Oxford University’ after being harassed by a group of male students at Camera, a local nightclub. The Facebook group is framed as a community for those who have “overheard, witnessed or experienced sexism directed at women” as a student at Oxford.

Some contributors have objected to the terms of the group as being too exclusive. Why, they ask, does this group deal solely with the prejudice and hatred faced by women at Oxford? Why not also   look to tackle “misandry”, defined as the hatred of men by women? I wanted to write to defend the terms of the group, while recognising the need to engage both men and women in the gender equality project. As a man, I’m wary of wading into Misogyny Overheard – I think it’s important for female students to have ownership of it – but I’d like to write in defence of it anyway.

One of the complaints raised about the terms of the group is that prejudice against men by women  is a problem too. Now, I agree that it is a problem: I think that some women (but, arguably, more men) are guilty of perpetuating a stereotype of conventional masculinity that is, I feel, counterproductive to the goals of the feminist movement. As Tony Porter articulated clearly in his 2010 TED talk, the box of conventional “manliness” into which men are expected to neatly fit works as a trap for men, and consequently will clearly influence the ways in which men relate to women. I feel there is a case to be made for a holistic approach to stereotyping in terms of gender, and examining our expectations of men in conjunction with promoting opportunities and outcomes for women.

However, I don’t think that this should take equal billing to fighting discrimination against women. I think it is permissible for the group to form a gender-specific safe space, simply because prejudice against women is undeniably worse in Oxford than prejudice against men. Women are more likely to be verbally and sexually harassed than men, and the growing number of contributions to the Facebook group demonstrate to some extent the frequency and grotesque creativity of these incidences. Women are also subject to more subconscious (I hope) prejudice and inequality: they are significantly under-represented in positions of leadership in common rooms and societies, and they are also less likely to excel in their examinations in a number of subjects.

With this in mind, it’s relatively uncontroversial to state that the experience of the average female student is likely to be less positive than the experience of the average male student. And the gap in these experiences is likely to be considerable. If you are a man studying at Oxford, you might experience some sort of hurtful gender-based experience, but it’s likely that it will be less frequent than that experienced by your female counterpart, and you’ll also be more likely to rise to a position of leadership and come away from Oxford with a first-class degree. When we decide how to tackle societies injustices and inequalities, we naturally have to prioritise those which are in most dire need of action, so as to concentrate our attentions and resources on them. It’s for this reason that misogyny needs to be addressed first.

It may also be worth exploring in more detail the intended purpose of the group. Some critics have suggested that the group should be a space for men to be able to express their experiences of misandry; that it doesn’t make sense for anti-misandry activists to establish their own group when they have (supposed) commonalities of experience and objective with Misogyny Overheard. This seems to make sense, right? Surely, you’re killing two birds with one stone. I would disagree. I think that the desire to rationalise and include more and more causes within a particular forum dilutes the impact that the forum has on its membership and readership.

I think that the positive impact of the group is twofold. Firstly, it allows women who have been exposed to misogyny to feel a sense of community an togetherness with other women who have had similar experiences. As with most anti-stigma campaigns, reading experiences similar to yours can help to dissipate the shame and confusion of such an incident and form it more into a positive sense of empowerment. Secondly, the hope is that both women and men who are less in tune with a sense of feminist justice, and maybe, even, the perpetrators of the misogyny themselves might stumble across the group and be encouraged to change their minds about what constitutes acceptable behaviour towards women.

Both of these outcomes wil necessarily be weakened if the scope of the group is made broader. While i don’t doubt the utility of a safe space for those who suffer from experiences of transphobia, homophobia, racism, disablism and, yes, even misandry, I do feel that the sense of community and commonality of the group is more effective in supporting the wellbeing of its members if its scope is more limited. I also feel that an external audience is less likely to be interested in paying attention to a generalist forum along the lines of ‘Discrimination Overheard at Oxford’ than one that is more targeted, pithy and relatable in its content.

There’s a certain group of men who are always keen to self-identify as the victim. To those men: you may be maligned, but there are members of your community whose experience is and will continue to be considerably worse. For now, at least, I’d recommend that you take a step back, listen, and do what you can to challenge the norms and behaviour that make misogyny acceptable. We can deal with your problems later.

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