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Only feminism can stop my sons growing up to hate women

When we talk about raising boys to grow into confident men, we need feminism – not thinly-disguised hand-wringing about adjusting them to the new “equality” – to bring them up not to hate women.

Boy running in fountains. Photo: Getty
It is 2014 and boys are still turning into men who don’t like women. Photo: Getty

In recent years specific guidance on raising boys has sprung up as an awkward counterpart to feminist activism. Positioned as a response to “masculinity in crisis” it seeks not to be anti-feminist, but to even up the balance sheet. Feminism for the girls, confidence-boosting for the boys. Who could argue with that?

As a feminist, I’ve never felt comfortable with this. It always feels like a thinly-veiled apology to the men of tomorrow for the fact that things won’t be as good as in the old days, back when women knew their place. However grateful women may feel that men are being helped to adjust to “equality”, what other social justice movement is expected to validate a counterpart “poor you” movement on behalf of the oppressor class? Isn’t it just typical? Can’t women and girls have anything for themselves?

It is 2014 and boys are still turning into men who don’t like women. And okay, it’s not all men, but even the ones who don’t actively hate us are perfectly capable of exploiting, objectifying and demeaning us. When misogyny is naked and extreme, in men such as Peter Sutcliffe, Marc Lépine, Anders Breivik or Elliot Rodger, we’re quick to position it as an aberration but we know that it is not.

One of the double-binds that misogyny creates for women is that calling it out – actually saying “this culture hates women” – will lead to accusations that one is irrational, hysterical and unable to see nuance. The woman who puts up and shuts up has the dubious honour of being more “like a man”, but only until her next transgression.

I am tired of this cycle, one which leads not just to misery for women but to thwarted expectations for men. As the mother of boys I know I’m expected to supress my resentment and get on board with the next pro-masculinity project, hoping that it will make my children into strong, confident men (or at least ones who don’t resent me for being too much of a harpy). I’m expected to wring my hands about their self-esteem and to panic about girls “stealing” all the A*s and university places.

I’m meant to worry about them disliking themselves, not about whether they will also learn to dislike women. I’m supposed to assume, glibly, that as long as they are content and fulfilled, they will not become misogynists, however filled with hate the air that they breathe. I simply don’t believe this. I watch the pro-boys movement, tracking feminist progress and launching one bad-faith countermove after another, and I know it will not spare my sons the misery of hating. Only feminism can do that.

Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys has long been held up as a lifesaver for mothers trying to raise confident boys in the face of feminism’s monstrous regiments. Scratch beneath the surface and what it really offers is an entrenchment of male entitlement, albeit with touchy-feely justifications. It positions itself as distinct from men’s rights extremism but lies on the same continuum. It is snide and sneaky, suggesting to mothers that if their little boys are allowed to “feel good about themselves” then they can’t possibly grow up to hate women. As ever, women bear the greatest responsibility for men not despising them. Funny, that.

Biddulph tends not to use words such as “objectification” – those are strictly for the feminists, doing whatever separate stuff feminists do. Instead he talks about “creepification” (I know, poor boys, having to be creeped out by the sexy ladies!). He argues that parents must “teach their daughters not to misuse their physical appeal to exploit or tease boys”. He also claims that “boys in their mid-teens think girls are wonderful”:

They envy the easy way girls laugh and talk with their friends, their 'savvy' and their physical grace. But, above all, they are aware of girls’ tantalising sexual promise. [...] Girls seem to hold all the cards.

Biddulph warns that “if boys don’t get much chance to talk and share with real girls, the more likely they are to start to fantasise about control and domination”. He believes that the end point of “creepification” is “the young man who rapes a girl, or the adult who sexually assaults his own children, or the man who visits brothels obsessively”.

Most of us will have heard of creepification already. However, because we are not desperately trying to recast feminist analysis as the struggles of the great white male, we call it by its real name: misogyny. And in suggesting to parents of boys that the solution to misogyny lies in ensuring that women and girls are more accessible to boys, Biddulph merely perpetuates it. Boys do not need porn to “see what goes where, and how!” Women are not slot machines, mechanically doling out orgasms and ego boosts. If men and women are to be seen as equally human, we must dispense with the idea that half the human race can only find self-realisation in penetrating the other half. We are more than that, every single one of us.

Men do not need nice, kind, understanding women to help them realise their own humanity. Biddulph may claim that “the antidote to ‘creepiness’ is an infusion of warmth, humour and openness” but it has to be more than that. Men need to recognise that women are human simply because we are – not as an endorsement of their own humanity. It is feminism that offers a release from this dependency.

The journalist Ally Fogg has argued that “a unified men’s sector can not only peacefully co-exist with the women’s movement, but actually complement it”:

Feminists want an end to male violence and criminality? So do I. Feminists want equality in the home and the workplace? So do I. The old refrain ‘patriarchy hurts men too’ is undoubtedly true but it is not a solution. It implies that all we need to do is achieve full social justice for women and male-specific problems will simply wither away.

This is to imply that feminist thought is incomplete and inconsistent – a half-hearted, on-the-hoof attempt to address things that annoy women as opposed to a far-reaching vision of liberation for all. This is not fair. Moreover, genuine structural change in relations between men and women cannot be done on a quid pro quo, as-and-when basis. It has to be organic change if we are to see each other not as mirrors for reflecting our own egos, but as fellow human beings, capable of love but not demanding it.    

I know this will sound ideological and one-sided to some. I don’t actually care. I’m done with hand-wringing. I’ve had enough of trying to “share out” liberation. I’m sick of trying to win male approval by saying things are balanced when they’re not. I want feminism now. For the sake of my sons and their peers, whatever their sex, I don’t want us to wait any more.