The men's rights zeitgeist

Don't buy into this pretend battle of the sexes.

It's been one hell of a week for women. Not only did we see Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai vilified for her failure to lose her baby weight fast enough, but we also discovered that the SmoothGroove fanny protector (giving your vagina a more streamlined silhouette since 2012) was an actual product. On top of that, we have Grazia telling us to "send your butt to bootcamp", because, and we quote verbatim here, "butts are huge at the moment, both literally and trend-wise". As the inimitable Patsy Cline once yodelled (a maxim which now echoes through the karaoke bars of the north-west every Friday night): "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." Yet, this week, we're being told that men are having a pretty tough time of it too. Maybe even a worse time, if the book The Second Sexism, by David Banatar is to be believed. Much of the coverage has suggested that men are the real victims of abuse here, you see. Unemployment affects white working class men the most, they rarely get custody of their children, and prisons are full of them (men, not children, obviously). As the feminist deity and all-round bullshit detector Suzanne Moore has pointed out, this might have something to do with men like, doing more crime.

Men's rights are, if you'll pardon us using the "media-speak" we've recently been exposed to in TV production meetings, pretty "zeitgeisty". Like your arse, men's rights are massive right now. Of course, this has been "a thing" since the Fathers4Justice superheroes first scaled a public building, reiterating in one fell swoop that irresponsible, life-endangering behaviour and silly costumes are not only newspaper-friendly, but are also not qualities many women look for in a potential birthing partner. Then we had Tom Martin suing the London School of Economics' gender studies programme for sexism, one of his complaints being that the chairs they sat on were too hard and not suitable for the comfortable positioning of his goolies. Poor Tom.

This week, alongside the incessant plugging of The Second Sexism, we have the American "National Coalition for Men" backing the Republicans' version of the Violence Against Women Act, claiming it will give the "true victims" of abuse the long sought for protection they need. These true victims? Heterosexual men, of course. Then we had Tony Parsons moaning about how having a successful partner makes men feel as though they have little willies, but that's the minor end of the spectrum when you consider the anti-woman agenda peddled by websites such as "A Voice for Men". We came across the site via RegisterHer, an online initiative which purports to be an alternative to the male-dominated sex offenders' register, in which they publicly name and shame women who have "cried rape" and label high-profile feminists as "bigots".

Their "brother site" A Voice for Men is essentially the EDL of the mens' rights movement, positing as it does such statements as "a single mother is a woman who in most cases chose to have, or to raise a child without a father. This demonstrates terrible, selfish values", and "fake boobs are a sexual advertisement. If your wife or GF wants them that means she's seeking to attract heightened male attention." It's extremist, bitter, and encourages men to "not get fucked" by taping every conversation that they have with a woman, like a troop of paranoid angry, ninja spies.

Such websites are ripe for ridicule, so it's hard to know how seriously we should be taking them. Many resemble the more radical ends of the feminist spectrum - with one crucial difference. Most feminists openly acknowledge that patriarchy is bad for men as well as women, and that concrete gender roles and unrealistic societal expectations, such as men being encouraged never to openly display emotion, are generally a bad thing. In light of that, having men splinter off to form these "cock coalitions" is rather puzzling.

Psychologist Oliver James stated that the reason for this is that men are feeling "sexually threatened". And of course, the reason so often touted for this is female emancipation - we have come too far. You only have to look at the popularity of pulling guide The Game and website The Ladder Theory- a pseudo-scientific attempt to explain the relationship dynamics between the sexes (choice quote: "Most guys know that women dig guys with money…. Women who are this way (and it is almost all of you) should be honest and admit that they are basically whores") to realise that these guys truly believe that they are under siege.

This debate is very much being set up as a battle of the sexes. Rather than joining us in our anti-sexism agenda, these men are attempting to fight back against vagina-wielding harpies by reasserting their masculinity in a way that is not only misogynistic but also deeply conservative. Fighting sexism means fighting it in all its forms in the hope that we will one day achieve an equal, happy society. Booting women back into the kitchen and stripping them of their voices will not achieve that, just as feminist bashing will not endear you to those who are engaged in fighting patriarchy and all the unpleasant consequences it holds for both men and women. Yes, stereotyping men as incompetent, emotionally illiterate buffoons is unfair, not to mention deeply impolite, but rather than engaging in a victim-war, rather than saying "I have suffered, and my suffering is of more important than yours," why not accept that we all suffer, in some way or another?

It is of course, a matter of historical fact that women have been systematically sidelined and regarded as second class citizens for much of our time on the planet, but here at the Vagenda, we also recognise that it must be terribly upsetting to be repeatedly told that you can't multitask. Which is why we're going to put ridiculing the anti-abortion lobby to one side for the time being and make this all about you guys. It's what you wanted right? You are, after all, the zeitgeist.
 

Neil Strauss, the author of The Game, a pulling guide for men. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, expands on Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, cyberfeminism never did "tell you what I want, what I really really want" but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be, artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here