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.

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Iraq War opponents were called traitors and snakes – now it's happening with Brexit, too

After an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost.

“We are all Brexiteers now,” said the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, in July, explaining why he felt comfortable backing the Remain-supporting Theresa May as his party leader. To which I’d like to reply: I’m not. Leaving the EU still seems like an act of wanton economic self-harm, and constitutional wrangling will crowd out any serious discussion of domestic policy and public services for years to come. Yes, it has to happen. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

The other reason why I’m not cheering on the idea of Brexit is that it’s so clear that the Brexiteers don’t want me to. Their entire narrative relies on casting themselves as the underdogs, fighting the pernicious dominance of the “liberal elite”. These two words are a magic mantra, stronger than any industrial solvent: they wash away money, privilege and connections, rendering even the poshest bloke the authentic voice of the humble working man.

Unfortunately, encouragement for this type of attitude comes from the top. It was striking how little Theresa May’s Conservative party conference speech had to say to anyone who voted Remain and, indeed, how casually it caricatured 48 per cent of the population as la-di-da latte drinkers in £2m houses.

Are the people of Northern Ireland, who have the UK’s lowest average pay, weakest productivity and highest unemployment, members of this hated elite? They must be, because a majority of them voted to stay in Europe. What about the people of Lambeth, the area that had London’s highest Remain vote? They can’t escape the accusation of being metropolitan, true, but as the 22nd most deprived borough in England, I doubt they feel like elites, either.

Once an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost. On 12 October, the Daily Express ran a comment piece by Chris Roycroft-Davis claiming that anyone who wanted a Commons vote on Brexit was arguing: “The people have spoken, we don’t like what they said because they aren’t as clever as us, so let’s ignore them and try to reverse the referendum result.” He added, “Such snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished. Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London.” And in case you think that this was just a columnist getting overexcited (like when Rod Liddle has too many cod liver oil pills and – oops! – ends up breaching a court order), consider the front-page headline: “Time to silence EU exit whingers”.

This madness is spreading. A Tory councillor called Christian Holliday recently started a petition calling for the Treason Felony Act to be amended, so that it would become an offence “to imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others to support the UK becoming a member of the European Union”. It got a dribble of signatures before he was suspended from the party. (Side note: his name would make him an excellent choice to lead this year’s inevitable round of the War on Christmas.)

I know that, individually, these seem like minor examples: we can’t ascribe too much significance to the ravings of local politicians and Express op-ed contributors. My concern is that these are only the lurid flowerings of a much deeper phenomenon: an insidious recasting of the events of 23 June as a huge landslide in favour of the hardest possible Brexit, rather than a 52-48 decision with millions of people in the soggy middle, worried about both immigration and the economy – and imagining that the government will try to arrange the best compromise between competing interests.

Yet we have already slipped into a space where “ordinary people” supported Brexit; where it is unpatriotic to question the exact form that leaving the EU should take. Any scrutiny by parliament is “subverting the will of the British people”, as if MPs were elected by some other group entirely. No one should try to overturn or even temper the referendum result, because, after all, it’s not as if Nigel Farage and his friends spent decades fighting the consensus in politics.

All of this reminds me of the rush to go to war in Iraq, when similar arguments were deployed: why do you hate freedom? Are you a terrorist sympathiser? Why aren’t you getting behind your government? Rereading some of the rhetoric from the early 2000s is chilling. A Sun front page in 2003 showed the then Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, next to a cobra, asking readers to “spot the difference”: “One is a spineless reptile that spits venom . . . The other’s a poisonous snake.” At the 2004 Republican national convention, the keynote speaker Zell Miller told delegates: “Our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.” In other words, opposition was divisive and unpatriotic.

We are back in that dark place. We have lost the idea of politics as the art of endless compromise, trying to deliver the best possible result, pleasing the greatest possible number of people – and protecting a space for dissenters. Only 52 per cent
of us matter.

In her conference speech, May attacked Remainers for “find[ing] the fact that more than 17 million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering”. Well, yes. It sounds like a terrible idea to me. But I’m sure that Brexit voters would say the same about my opinions. Do we really think that Farage has an intuitive sense of my concerns? Yet, in this new world, he isn’t expected to understand me, although I have to understand him. And I have to shut up, too.

None of this is good for democracy. Good opposition makes governments better, by forcing them to think more deeply and strategically. The atmosphere in 2003 led to a catastrophe in another country. In 2016, it could lead to a disaster in this one. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood