Another guest post for you, readers. This time, my friend Ben recounts his transition from misogynist to feminist. Yes I am happy to call him a feminist; I don’t think one needs to experience a form oppression to disagree with and stand against it. Men can be feminists; many are and they’re valuable allies.
I think this is an important post because it’s from a man who confesses his attitude was wrong, who noticed that, and then changed it over time. That doesn’t seem to happen too often and hopefully it might inspire some people, or at least help us to make sense of why people can harbour these common, irrational feelings of hatred.
NB/ text by Ben; I have added in headings, images and links.
What about the men?
“If I can’t have you, no one can!”
Yelled the estranged boyfriend to his ex girlfriend, while she was trapped in a blazing house fire he’d started. As a teenager watching this reported on the regional news, I felt a rush of the expected emotions – anger, sorrow and empathy, but not in the places you might expect. My first emotion wasn’t empathy for the girl who’d burned to death in the fire, but anger at what she must have done to deserve it.
Of course, women are just as capable of unhealthy jealous emotions as men, but what’s important is the thought process that got me to this conclusion. By this time I’d painted a picture in my head of a vast conspiracy of powerful, hysterical feminists, who were trying to silence and control men to suit their agenda.
I had a list of examples of how feminism had gone too far. I wasn’t allowed to have long hair at school, while girls were allowed to have long or short hair. Women were allowed to mock men for being bad in bed, but men weren’t allowed to say the same back. I said that women often lied about rape to get men locked up, and pointed to fathers’ rights and the fact that, historically, it was always men who were conscripted into the army.
The real issues
If I’m honest, I only really trotted out the examples above to justify my position; some of them even have some substance, but they didn’t make me angry. What did was, firstly, feminists challenging my point of view and, secondly, the fact that I found it really hard to get a girlfriend and, when I did, it usually ended abruptly with drama.
Getting and keeping a girlfriend was my ultimate goal, not because I genuinely loved any of the girls in question, but because I saw having a girlfriend as a status symbol. I could tell my friends that I had a girlfriend, was getting sex and that I wasn’t a failure as a man. I now realise that most of my friends wouldn’t care about my man status anyway, despite the lad banter, but this was what was going on in my head at the time. The feelings of the girls in question were irrelevant; to me girls were property that I had to cling on to and control. And if they dumped me, they deserved to be shamed in every way possible.
I would use emotional blackmail and intense pressure to get what I wanted in these relationships, and make them last as long as possible. I went out with a girl who smoked pot occasionally, and I basically told her that I would commit suicide if she kept doing it. This happened repeatedly, because she (rightly) refused to give in to me. I even hospitalised myself once – the pressure on her must have been immense.
The thought process here is difficult to explain, but I’ll give it a go. If a girl I was going out with did something I didn’t like, I’d get a big shot of adrenaline and hit a wall of irrational anger, especially if they knew I didn’t like what they were doing – I then saw her behaviour as selfishness. Once my anger button had been pressed, I lost all my powers of self-reflection and rational thinking. At that point, I’d come up with all sorts of warped explanations for my behaviour to create even more pressure and exert more control.
I should also point out that I did (and still do) genuinely suffer from clinical depression. The difference now is that I’m self-aware enough to know how my actions affect other people, and I’ve developed ways of coping with it. Back then, however, I knew it was something I could abuse as leverage to get what I wanted. If my girlfriend talked to another man, and I got jealous, I’d sit in the corner with my head in my hands saying I was depressed. I’d say that I felt like killing myself because of the way she made me feel.
When I inevitably got dumped, I’d tell my friends horror stories about how she’d said my depression was just a form of emotional blackmail, and make up lies to try to turn her friends against her. Being dumped, especially if we hadn’t had sex, was the worst thing that could happen. I wanted sex, and only women had the power to give or take it away, and in my mind this made them more powerful than anything else. Being dumped would push the anger button, because I ultimately couldn’t face the truth of looking at who I was and what I was doing.
At this time, I was also dabbling in music recording and fancied myself as the new Roger Waters. When I was dumped by my then-girlfriend, I wrote a whole concept album about the break-up. Embarrassingly, it got a distribution deal and was produced on a decent-sized CD run, so there’s a permanent record of it that still comes back to haunt me.
The lyrics are fascinating to me now. They basically talked about my ex girlfriend as if she’d joined a cult; a cult where nobody listens to men any more, and everyone’s obsessed with “so-called rights”. In short, it says: this slut obviously couldn’t think for herself, so she got sucked into the feminazi agenda and dumped a lovely boyfriend, just because he suffered from depression. This was easier for me to handle than the truth, which was that I’d been dumped because I was an angry, obsessive, control-freak who emotionally abused his girlfriends.
Loud and proud
I remember when I first heard the word misogynist. I was talking to a friend about a girl who’d dumped me, and my feelings about feminists creating a society where nice men couldn’t get girlfriends, and he described me as “quite a misogynist”. I asked him what he meant, and he said “it’s simply hatred of women.” I instantly loved the term. I didn’t consider myself a sexist – I thought of Benny Hill as sexist – sexism was just silly but this was serious.
I very seriously thought women were irrational, mad, over-emotional and pseudo-intellectual creatures who would do anything, via new feminism, to crush weak men who suffered from depression, and I hated them. These days, I see a lot of people saying “I’m not a misogynist, but…”, because they don’t want to be called a misogynist, but not me. It was the term I’d been looking for, and I was proud to call myself a misogynist.
This was before the age of social media, but I know what I’d be doing if it was available at the time. I’d be following feminists and strong women on Twitter, combing their tweets for any kind of slip-up that I could use to ‘expose’ them. If I saw a blog or comment by a feminist that challenged my world view, my anger button would be pressed and, rather than responding rationally, I’d lash out with gendered insults, all while completely failing to empathise with them.
I’d be angrily commenting on blogs and YouTube videos about feminism, sticking up for the men who just want to get girlfriends and sex, but can’t because of this repellent radical feminism. And I would probably never change, because the large scale of social media has effectively provided a veritable support group of people who feel the same way, with the same irrational anger that prevents them from assessing their views.
So what changed? I was in my 20s, and I’d had unprotected sex with a girl – this is another issue, actually – my need to have sex, and thus prove myself as a man, was always greater than the potential consequences – I had a complete inability to view sex and relationships from a rational and sensible perspective.
I told her that, if she got pregnant, she couldn’t have the baby, because it would put too much pressure on me to support it. When she told me that it was her choice what she did with her body, it pushed my anger button. How could she even consider doing that to me? I was irrationally angry, and my empathy was entirely skewed towards me, without ever considering how she might feel.
I told her I wanted nothing more to do with her, and she said to me:
“I’d like you to learn from this, but you won’t. You’ll just chalk me up as another “mad girl” and carry on repeating the same stupid mistakes.”
Again, that hit my anger button, and I was fuming about it for days. But a few months later, I thought about it more, and decided to start analysing why I was so angry.
The latter was key here. I’d never tried to rationalise my anger before; I’d just followed where it led. Of course, the problem with irrational anger is that you can’t analyse it while you’re irrationally angry. You need to give it a few days to cool off and then look at it.
What I found began to horrify me. I’d write down why I thought I was angry a few days ago – lists of statements such as ‘she overreacted,’ ‘she’s being arrogant, selfish and hypocritical.’ Then I looked at each one individually and asked myself what had actually happened. What was the truth? Without the shield of irrational anger, I began to realise that half of what was on the list wasn’t even true, and the stuff that was true couldn’t in anyway justify that level of anger and hatred.
Why was I so angry and hateful? Even now, I find this difficult to explain. It was probably a combination of an inability to accept criticism, insecurity and hormones, but I began to see that it was very seriously clouding my judgment. I continued to talk to people about my difficulty attracting women, sustaining relationships and my feelings about feminism, but when I got challenged, I decided to genuinely reflect on it rather than just getting angry and staying with the same views.
It didn’t work exactly like that, of course. Feminism still pushed my anger buttons, and I still argued a lot about it. But if something made me angry, I’d go home angry about it, silently rage about it while trying to sleep and then a few days later try to rationally analyse what had made me angry.
In turn, this led to a larger sense of self awareness. I knew about self awareness before, but I mainly just saw it as being self-deprecating in order to get compliments. Actually being aware of what you think, how you appear to other people, and why, made a massive difference, not only in terms of self-reflection, but also in terms of empathy.
I soon realised that my empathy had been severely skewed for years, but I’ve found that this can be unlearned once you’re self-aware enough. I’d only ever considered myself as the subject of empathy, or other men who were in my position, I’d never considered the emotions and feelings of the women I’d been emotionally abusing.
When I realised how my behaviour must have made my girlfriends feel, I felt sick. There wasn’t a feminist conspiracy to deprive nice men from getting sex and girlfriends. The girls I’d been out with hadn’t dumped me because I was ‘too nice’ or because I was depressed, but because I was an emotionally abusive arsehole. That’s not an easy thing to admit, but it’s a lot easier to fix once you’ve done it.
What followed over the next few years was an epiphany as I started to consider sexism and misogyny in the wider world. I spent several years married to a feminist (we’ve since separated, but I still thank her for patiently opening my eyes to so much of this), who would point out areas of sexist culture to me when it arose. At this time, despite no longer being an all-out misogynist, I still subscribed to the idea that sexism was largely a problem of the past, but I now see that it isn’t.
There are obvious examples, such as the discrepancy in salaries between men and women in the same roles and the number of women in parliament, but it’s actually all over the place. I’m reminded of the episode of Life on Mars with the black policeman in a 1970s police station, saying that you can’t just get rid of racism because it’s everywhere; it’s embedded in the culture. Once you recognise sexism you see the same pattern emerge. It’s not just stuff like men pinching women’s bottoms in the office lift; sexism is still a part of our culture in so many places.
Just off the top of my head, I regularly hear jokes about women drivers among my friends. If I go to a stand-up comedy gig, the line-up is invariably all men, and there’s nearly always a rape joke and a joke about how slapping some women in some circumstances is okay. Disturbingly, this is usually greeted with a big cheer from the stag parties in attendance, as if this is something to be celebrated.
When I read books or watch TV or films now, I’m constantly aware of how many female characters are only shoehorned into the plot to provide a love interest for a male character, or to act as eye candy. I watched District 9, thinking it was an awesome film (which it is), but it was then pointed out to me that there are no female characters in it, apart from a bit-part from a wife. That’s just one example – there are loads of others. This sort of stuff isn’t intentionally misogynist; it’s a product of a culture where we think men do the important stuff, and women are there for love interests and to have babies.
I work in technology and games journalism which, despite the hugely increasing numbers of girl gamers, still panders to lazy stereotypes. Tech and game trade shows are almost solely aimed at heterosexual men, to the point where the companies employ “booth babes” in minimal clothing to make their products look sexy to heterosexual men, and hold product launches at strip clubs. It all sends out a big message that technology and games are only for heterosexual men, and you can’t join our club.
The world looks very different when you take away irrational anger and conspiracy theories and add empathy to the equation. I’m not going to get into the issues of privilege, patriarchy and nice guys, as there’s plenty about that on the Internet already, but there are so many areas where sexism is pervasive in our culture.
You see it in the parades at Formula 1 events, the portrayal of women in computer games and the Internet comment sections full of violent threats (I don’t care if they’re sincere or not – they still contribute to a culture that makes rape seem acceptable to some people). Again, I’ve only listed a very small set of examples – there are thousands of others. Once you recognise sexism, you spot it all over the place [this is the perfect illustration - M].
It’s not always hugely problematic stuff, course. It’s easy to say: “oh, boo hoo, you got inappropriate sexual attention, get a grip – in some countries they stone women to death for adultery!” In fact, for the most part, I know a lot of women just block it out and get on with their lives, and many are preoccupied enough to not even care about most of it, and “good” for them. But it’s there, and when it’s all added up you get a culture where sexism is still very much alive, and in some industries extremely problematic. We might not be forcing women to wear burkas, but we demonstrably still have plenty of sexism in our culture.
Whenever this is brought up, the reaction from many quarters is the same kind of irrational anger and skewed empathy that made me into a monster. I’m not for a minute saying that everyone who ever disagrees with a feminist has the same mindset that I used to have, or that you can’t challenge anything a feminist ever says, but I definitely recognise a lot of the same behaviour.
I see intelligent people getting irrationally angry, painting feminists as hysterical, arrogant control-freaks, but not sitting back and asking why they’re angry, rationalising it and asking if they’re wrong. I often also see just a cursory disclaimer on forum posts, saying “I deplore sexism and misogyny, obviously, but…” and then launching into a diatribe about out-of-control, humourless feminazis and how men are the real victims.
Of course, feminists sometimes say stupid things too – they’re human beings, and we all do it. But when this happens, ask yourself what’s really made you angry – the stupid thing they said, or a conspiracy theory that you can’t debunk because it’s hidden behind a wall of irrational anger.
I haven’t written this to show off about how enlightened I am, to “save women” or to seek atonement for my former emotionally-abusive self, but to explain how my misogynist mindset worked and how I woke up to the real world. If you recognise any of the same behaviour in yourself, know that it’s possible to change, and that you’ll be a much better person for it. If you feel your irrational anger button being pushed, sit back a few days later and ask yourself why, and ask where your empathy lies. Write it down, think about it and be truthful.
You may not come to the same conclusions as me, and that’s fine – I always like to think that life is a learning experience, and I still get a lot wrong. But once you remove irrational anger from the equation and develop a sense of self-awareness and empathy, you can then start to really challenge yourself and open your eyes.
This process took decades with me, though. Debunking a feminist conspiracy in your head is a little bit like deprogramming yourself from a religion. It takes years of self-reflection and asking some really uncomfortable questions about yourself, but you do come out of it a better person.
Ben has also toured with his Skeptics in the Pub talk, Sharks don’t get cancer (The Myth) – so catch it if you can!