CAPITAL LETTERS, affectedly boisterous sex, little girl voice: internet feminists all write the same. This is a problem

The perils of Groupthink - Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

I’d call myself a feminist, so I’m happy to note that feminist commentary, at least online, is becoming fairly easy to spot. You don’t need to read the arguments, you can just scan for SUDDEN OUTBURSTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, AS IF CROSS, BUT IN A CUTE WAY, LIKE A CHILD. This is often accompanied by anthropomorphising the commentary (this column often finds itself, as if by magic, rooting through the fridge at 3am), affectedly boisterous descriptions of sex (I’ve been known to shout, “Is that the best you've got?” when in the throes), talking to groups as if all of them were right there in the room (oh, men, why are you like this?) and fun references to gin and/or cake.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with showing your writing influences - but when you write as a tribe that's a sign that you think as a tribe, and when you think as a tribe common sense starts to go out the window.

A couple of months ago a University in Colorado published some guidelines on how to minimise your risk of rape. The list was short and practical, and when it went up there was an immediate outcry across several social media sites, during which it was asked repeatedly why the message wasn’t “don’t rape” or “rapists are the ones to blame”, rather than “don’t get raped”. The response was so dramatic that the list was removed almost as soon as it went up, amid apology.

An almost identical episode happened last year over West Mercia Police's "Safe Night Out" campaign, which involved posters advising women how to avoid rape. A number of feminist websites, including the F-Word, picked up on it, and a prolonged and angry Twitter barrage followed. In the end West Mercia Police too, took down the posters and apologised.

The point the online commenters had been keen to make is that nothing excuses rape, and of course they're right.  But excusing rape is a very different thing from lowering the risks of rape. A number of things can lower the risks of rape – and these are things worth knowing about. The Safe Night Out campaign was never presented as a debate-framer, it was just some anti-crime info. Do we really need to couple every piece of “avoid being a victim of crime” advice with the rider “also, don’t commit crimes, crimes are illegal, and if anyone’s to blame for crimes, it’s definitely the criminal”? It's odd, not to say worrying, that these two concepts have become so muddled together in the case of rape that safety advice is being compromised. How did this happen?

My guess is that it's something to do with people moving as a group. Economists talk about the phenomenon of “groupthink” – the kind of thinking that happens when peer pressure cancels out a realistic appraisal of other viewpoints. Groupthink is never a good thing. One of the most notorious examples of its results is the US military’s failure to prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans intercepted Japanese messages which stated explicitly that Japan was arming itself to launch an attack. But such was the power of shared illusions and rationalisations that the group consensus became, despite having the Japanese messages in front of them, that Japan would not attack. Officers, afraid of facing social scrutiny, did not raise objections.

In this case it seems that the feminist response to advice about rape has been so rehearsed that it always produces the same response. (Ironically, the "knee-jerk" is probably one of the more effective manouvers with which to fend off an approaching attacker. Well, we'll never know now).

Perhaps its true that journalism can only have an effect on the world when everyone shouts the same thing at once. But if we’re going to move as an team we have to think about how we are steering. That generally requires a system of checks and balances – and that means making room for a few dissenting voices.

"Oh, men, why are you like this?" Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.