It’s not feminist to pour bleach on manspreaders, it’s just stupid

Feminism does not deserve to be undermined by idiotic acts that set men against women.

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Did you hear the one about the Russian student who was so fed up with manspreading that she took to the subways of St Petersburg to spray diluted bleach on men’s crotches? Hilarious, right? 

Wrong.

Look, I hate manspreading as much as the next unreasonable feminist. It’s antisocial, it’s rude, it displays an arrogant disregard for the people sitting around you. It’s a behaviour that women just wouldn’t get away with. 

And to be clear, I don’t mean that I’m advocating for men sitting with their legs clamped together — I don’t either unless I’m wearing a short skirt. Nor am I insisting that men should cross their legs at all times and that existence of their penis is no barrier to doing this. Some men say crossing their legs is fine, some men say isn’t. Not having a penis myself, I don’t feel in a position to be the final arbiter on this pressing matter. 

What I can say, however is that when your legs are spreading outside of the confines of your tube seat, you’re just taking the piss. I’ve seen enough men’s genitals to know that no one’s balls are that big. And if they are, you should probably see a doctor. 

But — and bear with me here — even if men invade my personal space in a tragic attempt to signal to the world just how massive their penis is, I just don’t believe that terrorising men is the way to achieve feminist goals. Shocking I know. 

I tend to be leery of “more harm than good” arguments against feminist campaigning. After all, I’ve been accused of it often enough myself. I’m harming feminism, say deeply concerned men who only want the best for women, by campaigning for female representation. I appreciate their advice, of course, but on the whole have gone ahead and ignored it.

But I’m making an exception for this idiotic stunt. It categorically does harm and I frankly can’t see any good that it does at all. Contrary to Mens Rights Activists’ and incel fantasies, feminism is not about attacking men. It is about liberating women. And yes, for women to be liberated, some male behaviour has to change, but this is done by the way we bring up girls and boys, by how we represent men and women in culture, in education, in political discourse. It is not done through random attacks.

There has been speculation that this video is a fake, or an art project, with the men in it having agreed to participate — although the woman in question has categorically denied this. But that is irrelevant. Onlookers were not willing participants. Those of us watching it on video are not willing participants. And all we see is the terrifying spectacle of a strange woman spraying a possibly noxious substance onto unsuspecting commuters’ crotches. In this age of acid attacks, this is far from funny or harmless. 

Indeed, so damaging is this stunt that if I were of a conspiracy theory bent, I would wonder if the Russian state were behind it. Russia is a country that has recently decriminalised any domestic violence (only criminalised in 2016) that doesn’t result in hospitalisation. It is a country where a feminist blogger is potentially facing five years in prison for “inciting hatred towards men”. It is a country where women have been arrested in middle of the night raids, simply for attending feminist rallies. This is not a country that is friendly to feminism or feminists — presenting feminists as violent, dangerous and unhinged is certainly in its interests.

But whether this is a fake, a government stunt, or just an incredibly stupid, silly woman, feminists must condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Men do not deserve to be terrorised for sitting in an obnoxious way. Women do not deserve to be framed as unhinged for demanding their rights — not least in a country where up to 36,000 women are being abused every day. And feminism does not deserve to be undermined by idiotic acts that set men against women. 

Feminism is a political movement, based on a structural analysis of society that has shown beyond all reasonable doubt that women are systemically disadvantaged. Acts like this do not further the feminist goal of liberating women from that discriminatory structure. They merely play into the hands of misogynists who want to frame women as crazy for objecting to being second class citizens. So whether this was a stunt by a misguided feminist, a fake, or even a deliberate act of anti-feminist disinformation is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that it was not an act of feminism — no matter who was behind it.  

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, Invisible Women, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.