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The new age of misogyny

How extreme attitudes have escaped from the online manosphere and infected society.

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It is logical that Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, should begin her book Entitled, a forensic exploration of male privilege and modern misogyny, with the 2018 Senate hearing on the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Despite all the hopes (and fears) that the #MeToo movement would fundamentally reconfigure gender relations in the US, the hearing revealed how little had actually changed.

Women may have won the moral ­argument against sexism – it’s no longer politically correct to argue that they are ­intellectually or morally inferior to men – but that sexual assault remains ­endemic and so often goes unpunished demonstrates that women are treated as lesser all the same.

Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who testified that Kavanaugh and one of his friends had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, was tearful but composed during the hearing, even when she faced aggressive questioning. She described how afraid she had been that ­Kavanaugh might accidentally suffocate her. She said she was haunted by the memory of Kavanaugh and his friend laughing while she lay pinned underneath them.

Kavanaugh, by contrast, seemed outraged that anyone should be allowed to question him: “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace!” he fumed. His fury was almost matched by that of the Republican senator Lindsey Graham. “Are you a gang rapist?” Graham asked Kavanaugh. “No,” he replied. “I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through,” Graham said.

Key to understanding this episode, Manne argues, is male entitlement, which also explains why misogyny has survived successive legal and political victories against gender discrimination. “Women are expected to give traditionally feminine goods (such as sex, nurturing and reproductive labour) to designated, often more ­privileged men, and to refrain from ­taking traditionally masculine goods (such as power, authority and claims to knowledge) away from them,” she writes.

This dynamic is inherent in sexual assault, and in the social response to allegations against powerful men. After giving her testimony, Blasey Ford was subject to so many death threats that she was unable to return home. Kavanaugh successfully cast himself as the victim, the subject of excessive sympathy – what Manne calls “himpathy” – by Republicans such as Graham, even as he was confirmed to the Supreme Court. His role now grants him extraordinary power over the lives of American women, not least because he may soon be called to vote once more on their constitutional right to abortion.

In her first book, Down Girl, Manne wrote that while sexism is the “ideological branch” of the patriarchy, the beliefs that rationalise gender inequality, misogyny is better thought of as patriarchy’s “law enforcement branch”, as it polices gender norms and subjugates women to hostility or disproportionate punishment if they are perceived  to err. Manne is less interested in misogyny as a personal attitude than as a property of our social environment, where it often functions like a “shock collar worn by a dog to keep them behind one of those invisible fences”, no less limiting for being sometimes hard to see. To understand how this shock collar is triggered, one must look at male privilege and how it strips women of their entitlement to care, authority and power.

Manne argues that this dynamic helps explain a range of depressing phenomena: why sexual assault often goes unreported, why abortion rights are under attack in the US, why even popular female politicians are often dismissed as “unelectable”, why women still do more housework and childcare than men, and why qualified women are used to having things “mansplained” to them by less-qualified men.

Entitled is a powerful and moving book. Misogyny does not affect all women equally, which makes it possible, if you are privileged or complacent, to mistakenly feel that gender equality is within easy reach.  It is easy, too, to see issues such as domestic violence or maternal mortality as discrete problems, rather than part of a broader pattern. This leads to Entitled, a precisely arranged anatomy of modern ­misogyny, to be shocking without being surprising. I want to press it on every schoolgirl who thinks that feminism is uncool, any woman who thinks the most important gender battles are won, pretty much every man I know, and say, have you thought about this?

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The death on 18 September of the liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has intensified the fight to protect American women’s right to ­abortion. This freedom is under assault by a radical anti-abortion movement hoping that a conservative-dominated Supreme Court will overturn the constitutional rights that were enshrined through Roe vs Wade in 1973. Already 21 states have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion. Manne writes that these laws demonstrate how men feel “entitled to regulate pregnant bodies”.

It is evident that the anti-abortion movement in the US is more concerned with controlling women’s bodies than with saving human life. It is no coincidence that the states with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest rates of ­maternal and infant mortality, or that those most ­upset at the “murder” of a cluster of cells ­appear unmoved by the hundreds of ­American women who die needlessly each year in childbirth – a figure that experts ­confirm will only rise if women cannot access safe abortions.

What does it mean for the fertility industry – all those fertilised embryos, languishing unused in fertility clinic freezers – if life begins at conception, one Alabama senator was asked. “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant,” he responded, a statement that is both nonsensical and revealing. The movement against abortion in the US is a “misogynistic enforcement mechanism designed to compel women’s caregiving”, Manne writes, noting also that the current restrictions on abortion disproportionately affect women of colour.

“That many women – especially white women – have internalised this moral code and would now consider themselves bad women for having an abortion is not difficult to explain either… those women have much to gain by abiding by the norms of good womanhood, vis-à-vis the values of our white supremacist patriarchy,” Manne argues. It is frustrating when those defending women’s rights to safe, accessible, legal abortion (a right I support without reservation) refuse to engage with women’s feelings of moral ambivalence, and dismiss those who feel conflicted over having an abortion as bad feminists. Perhaps some view an abortion as a straightforward, liberating medical procedure, like cutting out an ingrown toenail or a cyst, but this is not how many women experience their own abortions, or indeed their pregnancies or miscarriages. Who would tell the woman who miscarries that she has lost nothing more than a cluster of developing human cells, even if this is a biological truth?

At one extreme the so-called pro-life movement believes an embryo’s right to life trumps any consideration of the rights and desires of the woman carrying it. At the other, any consideration for the foetus is irrelevant: abortion is solely a question of female bodily autonomy.

I worry that this latter position is ­alienating and self-defeating. Anti-abortion radicals have been astute at manipulating people’s uncertainty about the moral and legal status of foetuses by, for instance, ­supporting foetal homicide laws that ­ostensibly ­protect pregnant women from violence but in ­reality are used to criminalise those who miscarry or have abortions. Manne argues that even if women personally oppose ­abortion this doesn’t entitle them to determine whether other women should have them, a liberal appeal that I support but that will not win over those who do think abortion is akin to murder. It’s true that the anti-abortion movement is fuelled by misogyny and male entitlement, but it’s shaped by other forces too.

Entitled does not delve into the history of misogyny, nor is it especially forward-looking. You could think of Manne more as a cartographer, mapping out the cultural and political landscape so that it becomes easier to see the bigger picture. When Manne wrote Down Girl she saw little hope that people would take misogyny seriously or even recognise it as a problem. “I give up,” she wrote then. But this time she feels she no longer has the “luxury” of despair. While writing Entitled she gave birth to a daughter, and she began to feel an obligation to fight for inequality, even if she still fears a “toxic backlash” to such efforts.

In her final chapter she describes the sense of entitlement she wants to inspire in her daughter. She wants her child to know she is entitled to be nurtured, that she is entitled to bodily autonomy, sexual enjoyment and power – and that these prerogatives come with obligations, including the duty to defend and support others. “I can’t imagine successfully teaching my daughter all of these things,” she concludes.  “I still have tremendous difficulty picturing a world in which girls and women can reliably lay claim to what they are entitled to, let alone in which they get it. It will be a long, perhaps interminable fight. But, for her, I can say: I am in it.”

It is a moving sentiment. I, too, find it hard to entertain the possibility that my young daughters’ lives and ambitions will be artificially constrained. But the limitation to such an approach, which sees change and progress primarily as the sum of individual efforts, is that it does not engage with the economic and political structures that perpetuate inequality. The “pro-life” movement, for example, has grown in power even though public support has remained consistently in favour of abortion. A well-calibrated sense of entitlement is of ­little use without a political and legal strategy for resistance. Entitled lacks a detailed solution. Rather, it is intended as a prerequisite to one: you can’t fix a problem if you don’t fully understand it.

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Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, a website she started in 2012 to collect women’s experiences of sexism, has also contributed a new book that tries to chart and explain why misogynistic attitudes have not simply persisted but seem to be spreading and hardening in the US and UK. The Men Who Hate Women is a disturbing dispatch on the “manosphere”, the online community that includes men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, incels (“involuntary celibates” who believe that promiscuous, looks-obsessed women are denying them their right to sex), MGTOWs (the “men going their own way” because all women are money-sucking, creativity-sapping, life-destroying snakes) and other assorted trolls.

Bates argues, convincingly, that society has tended to underestimate the power and influence of these groups. We can dismiss them as impotent no-hopers, bashing out vitriol from their mother’s basements, but their online ranks have expanded to tens of thousands and they have inspired real-life acts of violence. In 2014 Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old who frequently posted on incel forums, killed six people in California, as “retribution” for girls not being attracted to him. Rodger is venerated on incel forums and has inspired several copycat attacks, including in 2018 when Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old software engineer, drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing ten people.

The rise of Donald Trump, who owes his political success to a constellation of alt-right, white-supremacist and woman-hating groups, attests to the political clout of the manosphere. How affirming it is for them to hear the president of the United States dismiss women as “fat pigs” or brag about grabbing them by the pussy. The president speaks their language; they speak his.

Since 2012 Bates has visited one or two schools a week to talk to pupils about sexism, and here she reveals that in recent years she has noticed a distinct shift. Previously she found that even when pupils were initially sceptical or mocking she could find ways to engage with them. Now it is common to find boys who arrive at her talks braced for confrontation, “coordinated, confident and smooth” and armed with false statistics and phrases that were familiar from the many hours Bates has spent trawling online women-hating forums, using her undercover alter-ego, Alex. It became clear to her that these schoolboys had been radicalised online.

One problem Bates observes is that boys’ unrestricted access to violent and demeaning pornography online has warped their understanding of consensual sex. Bates once visited a school that had experienced a rape case involving a 14-year-old boy. “Why didn’t you stop when she was crying?” the teacher asked him. Bewildered, he replied: “Because it’s normal for girls to cry during sex.”

Young people’s confusion about sex makes them more susceptible to far-right misinformation. Many teens follow meme accounts on Instagram, where the sexist, racist, Islamophobic and transphobic content is disguised as humour and given appealing labels such as #edgymemesforedgyteens. Many are avid YouTube users, at the mercy of the site’s algorithm, which pushes ever more inflammatory content in an effort to keep them hooked. When Bates, as an experiment, clears her internet cookies and types “what is feminism” into YouTube one of the first videos that comes up is a pro-feminism speech by the actress Emma Watson: so far, so good. The video that plays automatically thereafter is an interview with the far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos in which he describes feminism as “primarily about man-hating” and it only gets worse from there.

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Policymakers remain blind to the dangers of young people’s exposure to violent women-hating groups online, and they have failed to properly recognise the threat these communities pose, Bates observes. One of the government counterterrorism agencies Bates contacted for her research had not even heard of the term “incel” when she approached them. Both the US and UK anti-terrorism strategies focus on far-right and Islamic extremism and do not even mention misogynist violence. (By contrast, they do cite animal rights extremists, although unlike incels these groups have not committed several mass murders in recent years.) The media often fails to make the link between misogyny and terrorism, even when attackers such as Rodgers or Minassian are explicit about their goals and ideology. It’s noteworthy, too, that many men who carry out terrorist acts were also violent with their partners. Domestic abuse could be considered an intimate form of terrorism.

The media does not come out well from Bates’ extensive reporting and sharp analysis. She is concerned by the way extremist views infiltrate the mainstream via gateway figures who are frequently invited by the media to discuss overhyped issues such as false rape claims. Such figures – she names Jordan Peterson and Piers Morgan – lend a veneer of legitimacy to white male supremacist ideology. Bates feels, understandably, infuriated by the shallowness of the public conversation about sexism. She wants to raise awareness on pressing ­feminist issues such as domestic abuse or period poverty, but instead she receives endless requests to weigh in on trivial issues such as “man flu: fact or fiction” or to debate with right-wing commentators on inane topics such as whether “feminism has gone too far”.

“Men hurt women. It is a fact. It is an epidemic. It is a public health catastrophe. It is normal,” Bates writes. A third of all women experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives; worldwide 137 women a day are killed by their partner or a family member. We have no hope of preventing such violence, or in overcoming the misogyny that fuels it, if we do not recognise or understand it. Bates’ and Manne’s books, which complement and reinforce each other, are a good place to begin.

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women
Kate Manne
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists, the Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us All 
Laura Bates
Simon & Schuster, 368pp, £16.99

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

This article appears in the 02 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union