Accessed 27th August 2013
Gender stereotyping is unhelpful and counter-productive – whoever's doing it
Assuming that men are not responsible for their actions harms them just as much as it harms women
The Guardian, Friday 23 August 2013 15.45 BST
How much do the reactions of a particular and self-selecting group to an unusual and disturbing incident tell us about our culture generally? Photographs of a teenage girl seemingly performing a public sex act on a young man at a festival in
weekend were published by a third party on the internet, where they were quickly
shared on social networks. Other people offered their opinions. Many condemned
the female as "disgusting", while the male not only escaped
censure but was even described as a "hero" or a
This, it is now being said, is a "typical" example of age-old sexist double-standards, whereby women are condemned for flamboyant expressions of their sexuality while men are admired. What rubbish. This may be the view of an ignorant, immature and vocal minority with more technology than sense. But otherwise, there is nothing typical about any part of this episode, and it should not be seen as an invitation to bang on a feminist drum any more than it should be seen as an opportunity to jeer at and judge a young woman. Far more telling, and far more cheering, is the fact that the mainstream media has been low-key in its reporting of the incident and its aftermath, realising that witch-hunts are not any longer something that responsible adults should indulge in or encourage.
It's true that a female has been subjected to vicious criticism, while, as my colleague Sarah Ditum put it in the New Statesman, "in the world of popular sexual mores, public oral sex is apparently seen as pretty much neutral for men". But is that true? Am I that out of touch? My impression is that the vast majority of men wouldn't in fact give or receive oral sex in public, wouldn't stand around taking snaps if they saw others doing so, wouldn't put those pictures on the internet and wouldn't go online to offer their uncharitable view on the matter. I just don't believe that it's useful to insist that general truths about contemporary sexual mores can be extrapolated from deliberate humiliation and cruelty by an almost universally condemned minority.
It has been made known that the girl is deeply distressed. It's reported that she was hospitalised and sedated and that her blood is being tested, to see if her drink was spiked, not least because other photographs have emerged, of sexual harassment by a group of men, in an earlier incident that she had complained about. There is talk of designating all of the people who shared the images, especially the
man who is accused of creating them, as publishers of child pornography, since
the girl is under 18. The suspicion is that she has been manipulated,
exploited, taken advantage of, because something made her vulnerable. Perhaps
it was alcohol, taken by her knowingly. Perhaps alcohol or drugs were given to
her without her knowledge, and with malicious intent. Either way, the man
involved is no hero. He behaved appallingly. Belfast
Yet there is no suggestion that his outrageous actions are anything other than self-explanatory. Maybe that's right. Maybe he has no excuse. Maybe he's pleased with himself. But the idea seems to be that he was just doing what all men would do, given the "opportunity". He wasn't though, was he? To suggest that he was is a grotesque caricature, insulting to most men. Reaction to this case, unfortunately, reeks of misandry as well as misogyny.
Of course, it's unfair that the man involved in the incident has not been showered with online disapprobation – no one denies that misogynists can express themselves online in a way that they can't in real life, and for obvious reasons. However, he nevertheless doesn't seem to be keen to capitalise on all of the "neutral" publicity. Instead, he is lying low. This suggests that he either knows that his behaviour is inexcusable, or understands at least that most people, far from seeing him as a hero or a legend, would be disgusted by him.
Can I be so bold as to suggest the unthinkable – that he might have regrets, might be appalled by his own behaviour, might be frightened for the consequences that may yet come, and be miserable at home with a family who are horrified by his appalling lapse? Maybe he was also drunk, or on drugs. Maybe he finds the people who call him "legend" repulsive. Who knows? There's been a distinct lack of curiosity about any of that.
Because that's the trouble with gender blaming. All misogynists are also misandrists. All misandrists are also misogynists. Saving your misanthropy for only one gender is just a not-so-fine distinction that leaves you stereotyping half of all people and archetyping the other half. Elevating individuals to archetypes may be less negative and nasty than reducing them to stereotypes. But it's still a refusal to see people for who they are, insisting instead that we are all identical microcosms representing all of our sex.
The type of sexual misogyny that has been meted out to this unlucky woman has come to be known as "slut-shaming". But slut-shaming is a prima facie example of the Janus-faced nature of woman-hating. Slut-shaming, by implication, doesn't just unfairly and negatively stereotype women. It portrays men as unwilling and unable to control their sexual impulses, reliant on women to take responsibility for policing their sexualrelationships, therefore making them blameless when sexual acts or sexual relationships are unsatisfying or abusive.
Anyone who indulges in "slut-shaming", somewhat paradoxically, has an unhelpfully and unfeasibly low opinion of what should be expected of men, and an unhelpfully and unfeasibly high opinion of what should be expected of women. This is not to say that it isn't important to identify and challenge this kind of reductive and biased name-calling. On the contrary, the debate is skewed and divisive, precisely because it concentrates far too much on exonerating all women and condemning all men. It does exactly what the thing it professes to hate does, and insists women are always hapless victims and men are always ruthless aggressors.
And as for the fact that women "slut-shame" too, often with great enthusiasm? Well, that's the fault of "the patriarchy", whose greatest triumph as an oppressor of women, as a destroyer of female agency, seems at present to be its ability to reassure susceptible women that men are always to blame.
There's a querulous passivity to some feminist debate; an endless search to put misogyny up on a podium of shame, rather than just drown it in the majority's common-sense attitude. Common sense tells us that misogynistic people are insecure. Cultural noise – broadly feminist – tells us that misogynistic people are powerful and dominating. But it's a bit silly really, a bit counterproductive, telling insecure men with feelings of inadequacy that there's this way of thinking about women that will make them feel powerful. The worst of men – and women – sign up to active misogyny and misandry, and they are then the people whose behaviour increasingly fuels debate. It's a downward, negative, abject spiral, that risks always seeking difference instead of similarity.
Common sense also tells us that public oral sex is not to be encouraged, that public embarrassment of people who make mistakes is horrible, that drinking or drugging yourself or others into insensibility, or taking advantage of those who do, is vile and that young people, male or female, sometimes behave in a confused or immature fashion. There is no great divide in opinion between men and women on these matters. So what on earth is the benefit to anyone of making out that there is?