The Second Sexism: don't judge a book by its press

David Benatar's book has valid comments to make about the position of men.

Anyone who has ever debated male-specific gender issues will probably have experienced an encounter like this:

Bloke: “Yeah, but men can also be victims of violence and injustice, why aren’t we talking about that too?”

Feminist: “Of course they can, and if you guys want to campaign on those issues, I’ll applaud you.”

In practice, it doesn’t always work out like that. This month, moral philosopher David Benatar published his book The Second Sexism to an excitable flurry of comment. Before discussing what Benatar says, let’s be quite clear about what he does not.

Despite what you’ve probably read in the Observer, the Guardian, the Independent or even here in the New Statesman, Benatar is not a Backlash merchant. He does not argue that men have a worse time than women; that feminism has gone too far; that men are now the oppressed sex; or that sexism against women does not exist. On the contrary, he repeatedly details the many forms of injustice faced by women across the world, and applauds efforts to address them. Indeed the clue is in the title: not “The New Sexism” or “The True Sexism” but “The Second Sexism.” Second, meaning in addition or secondary to the first sexism which is, of course, against women. Benatar does not blame feminism for anti-male discrimination, rightly noting that most such injustices long predate the women’s movement.

He certainly doesn’t suggest positive discrimination, instead devoting an entire chapter to arguing that such policies are unethical and ineffective as a response to any form of sexism. Perhaps the chapter title “Affirmative Action” may have confused any critics who only read as far as the contents page.  

Nor, BBC Online readers, is Benatar a champion of the Men’s Rights Movement. In the book he notes astutely that men’s groups can become “fora for self-pity and for ventilating hyperbolic views that are not checked or moderated by alternative opinions.”  

Benatar’s actual argument is that, in most societies, men and boys face several specific and serious forms of wrongful discrimination, and that these are not only injustices in their own right, but also contribute to discrimination against women. The issues he highlights include military conscription and combat exclusions; male circumcision; corporal punishment, victimisation in violence and sexual assault, and discrimination in family and relationship disputes.

I do not intend to list the various ways in which I think Benatar’s analysis is correct, incorrect or inadequate, although there are plenty of each. Instead I want to focus on how the feminist consensus has reacted to the release of his book. While it would be a stretch to describe it as a feminist work, there is much in The Second Sexism that should be music to the ears of the sisterhood. He largely rejects biological gender determinism; argues strongly against social conservatism, and makes clear that the value of challenging the second sexism includes the benefits to women. Here I might go further than Benatar, and make arguments from which he rather shies away.

Benatar details numerous ways in which society betrays relative indifference to and indulgence of violence towards men and boys. It begins in childhood, where both institutional and domestic corporal punishment and physical abuse are deployed much more commonly against boys. It continues into adulthood, through the traditional male role as wartime cannon fodder, through our greater willingness to imprison men than women – an expensive way of making bad people worse, and through social norms which decree that all forms of violence against men are more acceptable, less harmful, more worthy of laughter than equivalent forms of violence against women. If violence is thus normalised in men’s lives, could some knowledge of basic psychology not partly explain why men seem more likely to commit most forms of violence, including assaults on women?

Similarly, wouldn’t those who campaign against ritual FGM find their argument easier to make if society expressed unequivocal condemnation of ritual genital mutilation of any infant? Wouldn’t the battle for equality in domestic and professional fields be enhanced by challenging courts which decree that women are more natural carers, or that it is less harmful for a child to lose a father than a mother to custodial punishment?  Reciting that patriarchy hurts men too and these problems will be solved by more feminism won’t cut it. How can feminism address these problems if it barely acknowledges their existence?

Benatar’s book is mostly complimentary and complementary to feminist objectives. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that it met a hostile response from the likes of Suzanne Moore and Julie “It’s bollocks” Bindel. There is often resistance from some feminists to the suggestion that male-specific gender issues even exist. I’ve written elsewhere about the overt hostility of some feminists to International Men’s Day. Male victims of domestic violence, and academics who research that issue, have faced angry and violent feminist attempts to silence them. 

This kneejerk defensiveness is not one of modern feminism’s more constructive traits. Perhaps it is understandable, given the constant drone of anti-feminism and misogyny that hums beneath much men’s activism, but that doesn’t make it right. Feminists are not obliged to agree with Benatar’s arguments, but it might help their cause to seriously engage with them. If, in de Beauvoir’s phrase, men and women are to “unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” then empathy and compassion must travel in two directions, not one.

Photograph: LLUIS GENE/AFP/GettyImages
Eglon van der Neer
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The DM slide: an investigation

What is it? Why does it cause such trouble? And how can you be better at it?

“What is a DM slide?”

The minute I proposed this piece I spotted a problem. “I’m going to do a piece on ‘the DM slide’”, I’d say. “Partially because it’s socially interesting and could tell us a lot about how we talk online. Partially” – I’d laugh – “because I want to figure out how to improve the quality of my inbox.”

Not only did most people not find me funny, but a fair percentage – from colleagues in their twenties to friends in their forties; almost everyone, in fact, who didn’t spend a good proportion of their job on Twitter – had no idea what I was talking about.

The thing is, I don’t really have an easy answer to “what is a DM slide?” Sure, I can tell you about direct messaging on Twitter, and how its introduction changed the app from one which focused on broadcasting your thoughts in public to one which also allowed a back channel of communication, used for bitching, whining, discreet professional conversations and, yes, flirting.

I can tell you about the ways men use this channel to try to talk to me: the prominent editor who persists in sending messages way past any hope of response, or the artist who writes to me only, I suspect, when his girlfriend (or is she his wife?) is away. I could tell you about the discomfort, the boredom, the eye-rolling. I could tell you about the laughter with my female colleagues, because yes, we compare notes.

I guess, for fairness, I could also tell you about the genuine friendships I have struck up over DM, or the way the phrase “DM slide” has become a meme which nods as much to the existence of a shared internet community as it does to the fraught codes that are part of navigating it.

I’ll save you that, for now.

Here’s the short answer: the DM slide is when someone, usually a man, sends you a message – “slides into your DMs” – in a way which, depending on who you ask, is either suave or just trying to be.

But it’s also much, much more than that.

The beginning

To get to the bottom of what might constitute a “DM slide” rather than just “a person talking to someone in a normal way online”, I did what generations of journalists before me have done and asked someone else. A lot of people, in fact.

What I wanted to find out was whether there were “rules” through which people, specifically women – because, as I intimated above, the whole exercise was really about me – recognised certain messages as flirtatious or even creepy, while others seemed innocent. I was also keen to find out how introducing direct messages might have changed the way interactions happened on Twitter. Was there a difference between how people spoke publicly and privately?

Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes. When I asked women how they felt when a man sent something privately that could have been sent in public, several admitted it made them immediately suspicious. “Why aren’t you doing this on public Twitter?”, one said, adding that “the fact you’re not means it’s probably creepy”. This is something I’ve felt myself, particularly when it comes to replying to pieces I’ve written: if there’s nothing obviously confidential in the content of the message, why does it need to be sent “out of earshot” of our followers?

Ambiguity also made certain messages uncomfortable for women:

It makes me uncomfortable when the purpose isn't clear - I don't use Twitter to chat to strangers, just to tweet them publicly or to DM chat with people I already know. If there's a reason they want to talk, that’s much better.

I would be uncomfortable with any unwanted attention, photos or comments. To that end I am always careful that banter doesn't slide into anything which can be construed as flirting.

You generally can get an idea of what they're like from their Twitter feed in general - if  we have nothing in common, have never interacted before, and they're not really saying anything of substance, it's definitely the creepy kind

What was most interesting, however, was when women talked about how they’d learned to make allowances for interactions which initially might have been unwelcome.

Men are direct in their approach to things in general and not big on subtlety. It's worth being aware that it's just who they are. Be direct.

One colleague also noted how the possible ambiguity about what a welcome and unwelcome interaction might be could make it hard for men who do want to chat to women online:

I do feel a littttle bad for men - we don't mean "never chat us up on street/never DM us/etc", but it's hard to explain what makes it okay or not okay. 

Girl's talk

So what does make it okay? And why might men and women have different ideas about what “okay” is?

Deborah Tannen is a professor at Georgetown University whose body of research has done much to advance our understanding of linguistics and gender. She observes how the medium through which someone sends a message online is its own “metamessage”: a part of the communication which gives the receiver information about how the written content should be taken. (It's a little like body language.)

Tannen tells me that young people are particularly fluent in this language of mediums, to an extent that might come as a surprise. “I hear from my students all the time: if someone sends a message on Facebook that shouldn’t have been sent on Facebook, it’s a big deal.”

“The existence of direct message immediately transforms the platform of Twitter”, she tells me. By introducing a new medium with its own signals and connotations, the app has changed how messages are sent and interpreted. In this sense, it is part of a wider trend online: everything from comments on news articles to how we speak on social media, Tannen observes, is moving “towards personal communication”:

“All these media platforms are redefining what people are thinking of as public and private. People think young people don’t have a sense of privacy, but they do: it’s just different.”

Tannen tells me a story about a student whose mother had gone through their public Facebook profile and then mentioned something she saw on it. This felt like an invasion of privacy to the student. It sounded absurd, but I recognised the feeling: when someone I didn’t know very well makes it clear they read my “tweets and replies” on Twitter, it feels overbearing.

But all of my tweets – including my replies – are public, and anyone can read them. “Those boundaries”, Tannen says, “are becoming blurred”.

So what is the DM slide, where someone deliberately chooses a private medium on a platform that bills itself as being all about shared communication? Is there something specific being signalled when someone who has the option of speaking to you in public chooses to do so privately? “It can be a kind of flirting: now I am paying special attention to you”, Tannen suggests. “Flirting is all about special attention.”

But there’s also a broader, gendered context. Tannen’s earlier work noted how women “tend to do public speaking in a private sort of way – men conduct their private conversations in a public sort of way.” (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons she suspects Hilary Clinton’s public image rankles in some quarters: she’s “not speaking as people expect women to”.)

This dynamic extends to online spaces. Women’s online conversations which are conducted in “public” still often take on a “private” tone, and they’re generally more likely to have conversations behind closed doors -- figuratively speaking. “Some areas of the internet look like they have more men’s voices, but often women are texting or exchanging more personal messages; communicating with their friends and making private connections.”

So what does this mean when men do speak in a private space? For Tannen, one possibility is that they continue to speak as if they’re addressing a wider audience. “Men do what I call ‘report talk’ rather than ‘rapport talk’.” Even in their text messages, men are more likely to be making plans rather than just chatting.

Could it be that they’re less practiced at shifting tone to the sort of register appropriate for a private message – and less clear on when it’s appropriate to make that shift?

DM school

This leaves us with a quandary. If, as Tannen suggests, there are in fact broad differences between men and women’s online communication, then how do we detangle male entitlement from clumsiness? How can well-meaning strangers know what will be received well?

Or, to phrase it another way: what makes for a successful DM slide?

I asked the women I spoke to about this, and the answers were fairly consistent.

For a lot of people, there is a sense of rhythm to interactions online, and stepping outside the boundaries of what is “normal” – much like real life – can come across as inappropriate. A reciprocal build up of interaction was one thing that helped some people distinguish between creepy interactions and welcome ones.

Like any friendship, the normal DM interactions are built up - a fav, a reply, and eventually, “we should obviously be mates, let's chat”

Even whether you've smiled at someone or not makes all the difference IRL - it's the same online

 If there's a reason they want to talk (feedback on something, wanting to discuss a piece but not bore everyone on your TL), that's much better.

Even more encouraging were the number of people who had made friends  even met partners  on Twitter. True, a lot of the people I asked were other journalists, and freelancers in particular reported making friends with people they had initially spoken to online. But the number of people I started off chatting to on Twitter who I'd now call friends isn't insubstantial, either. I'm not the first to observe that online communities are, genuinely, communities – and as with most social spaces, the vast majority of people are keen to be friendly and decent.

For my part, I’d suggest that men who want to send a private message to a woman they don’t know very well need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level when it comes to who is allowed to speak and who feels entitled to be heard.

Empathy is a practice undervalued in most popular depictions of heterosexual relationships, and there’s no doubt that being as decent a person as possible while living in an environment of structural inequality takes work – but it might make the difference between forging genuine friendships and being marked out as creepy by half the women in your profession.  Ask yourself: does the interaction really need to be private? What about if you were the third relative stranger in her inbox that day?

Remembering that, for most women, unwanted attention is a constant background to our day-to-day lives isn’t easy, but adjusting your own behavior back a degree or two can go a long way (and rarely goes unnoticed). 

Oh: and don’t slide into my DMs.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland