Think tank Demos would like you to know that it has discovered something “surprising” about misogynistic abuse on Twitter, something that shows “this problem is more complex than it initially appears”. So hold onto your hoohahs (unless you were already holding onto it because a shut-in from Luton has offered to introduce it to a blunt instrument): this is apparently gender-politics shaking stuff. Analysing uses of the words “rape”, “slut” and “whore” on Twitter by gender, Demos discovered that “women use these words almost as much as men”, and not only are women using them, they are also “directing them at each other”.
Is that the surprise? That there’s more to woman-hating than men attacking women? Of course women use these words: they are part of the language that describes women, and one would have to grow up within a feminist version of the Plymouth Brethren to avoid learning that “slut” and “whore” are synonyms for “objectionable woman”. And more than that, it would take a uniquely sheltered individual not to absorb the lesson that women are, in and of themselves, generally despicable according to our cultural standards.
My daughter (now eight) has taken to standing in front of the newsstand when we go to the shop for milk, and reeling off questions about the coverlines when we come out. I suppose I could make a feminist decision never to take her to the supermarket, and thereby avoid posers like “What’s ‘The sex shame my uncle made me keep’?” and “Why do you want to be ‘Beach ready’?” – but really, I think that even under patriarchy a child should learn how to buy food. It’s just unfortunate that learning the basics of functioning in the world means, for her, learning at the same time that she’s been born into a body that will never be good enough, and will always be seen as an invitation to violence from abusive men.
For women, self-loathing is practically a sport. We learn to exchange self-deprecating pleasantries in the same way that men learn to chat about football. Women trade self-inflicted barbs – I’m so fat, I wish I had your legs, Oh no but my bottom is too flat – with dispassionate connoisseurship, then go and look in the mirror and hate hate hate what they see. As bonding activities go, mutual self-disgust seems a perverse one to have settled on, yet here we are, hating in atomised unison. We spend money to fix whatever about our body is too big, too small, too loose, wrongly coloured or too hairy; or we assiduously conceal our aesthetic sins with carefully chosen clothes. And even after those efforts, we’re still not acceptable to public life, where women remain vastly outnumbered. In arts and the media, in government and politics, half of the world is represented only as a minority.
How could women fail to divine that they are repugnant as a class? The entire world is built around that principle, and at the bottom of that principle is sex. Gender is, I think, a rulebook for occupying the body you’re in; patriarchy is the system whereby the rulebook for female bodies is drawn up almost entirely to the benefit of those with male bodies, who get to enjoy women as a reproductive resource. Crudely put, at some point in human history, males fixed on controlling females as the best way of ensuring their own reproductive success, and over time the forms of that control became codified as “man” and “woman”. There are as many variations on what “man” and “woman” consist of as there are cultures, but one thing tends to be constant: the females have to be policed. That’s why the worst words for women all imply sexual incontinence: that’s the condition we’re encouraged to avoid at all costs.
As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains in The Woman That Never Evolved:
“Even societies which appear to esteem women for their sexual purity and passivity nevertheless take extensive precautions to prevent them from breaching their chastity. On one point there is extraordinary consensus: woman’s readiness to engage in sexual activity is great enough that the majority of the world’s cultures – most of which determine descent through the male line – have made some effort to control it. The reason for expending all this effort usually comes down to Samuel Johnson’s conviction that otherwise there would be ‘confusion of progeny’.”
If women were not kept in line, one way or another, the whole of the world as we know it would essentially fall apart. At the same time that women are victims of this structure, we also belong to it; we recognise our own place in it, and our individual investment in reinforcing it, even when it comes at the cost of the class we belong to. The Mail pantingly reported the Demos research as “Women troll each other” (it would be more accurate to say “women trolled overwhelmingly more than men, mostly by men but also by other women”, but there’s always resistance to casting men as culpable). That’s the same Mail that employs Jones, Platell and Moir – all women, all engaged essentially for their skill at ripping into other women. Yes, the lady hacks are viciously despised in turn, but what a thrill it must be for them to exercise the power of woman-hating and be well-paid for it too.
There is no mystery to women abusing women. There is not even any great puzzle to women inflicting violence on other women – as when mothers or grandmothers organise FGM for their daughters, or when the female journalists on women’s magazines gently suggest their readers might be improved with painful aesthetic surgery. The needling voices of “it’s-a-bit-more-complicated-than-that” declare that this means it can’t be a simple matter of misogyny, but misogyny is, simply, the hatred of women. The word does not define who does the hating. Patriarchy is the control of women to men’s advantage. The sex of whoever exercises that final shove of control is irrelevant: if women are kept down, men are the beneficiaries. That is a patriarchy, and no one should be shocked that women within a patriarchy behave patriarchally. Hating women is always the easiest option. It’s the one we must refuse, deliberately and consciously. Resistance is in having love for each other – and ourselves. That is how we tear the world apart and make it better.