Life lessons

Where I live September is back-to-school time, and this year the annual ritual had a special significance because it followed a period of several months when schools were closed to most children because of the pandemic. There were many reports on how delighted pupils were to be back with their friends in real classrooms with real teachers. But we all know (some of us from first-hand experience) that for some young people that won’t have been the story. There are many things that can make returning to school a less than delightful prospect. One of those things is sexism.

I first blogged about this back in 2015, when the Institute of Physics (IoP) published a report called Opening Doors, about sexism and gender stereotyping in schools. This document was on my radar because of the emphasis it placed on language. The Institute’s research had found that sexist language—covering a spectrum from casual stereotyping (‘I need two strong boys to help me with this table’) to name-calling and verbal bullying—was ubiquitous in schools. Half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using it to girls, and one in five teachers had themselves been subjected to sexist verbal abuse by pupils. The researchers also noted that this was rarely treated as a problem: often it was dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, though ‘many pupils, especially girls, did not see it as such’.

The IoP’s mild suggestion that schools should be less tolerant of sexist language got a predictable reception from the right-wing press, which treated it as both an outrage and a joke. The Sunday Times’s report lamented that

The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

Still, I found it encouraging that the report was getting some attention (and some buy-in from the government—it had a foreword written by Caroline Dinenage, the then-Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities). If anyone bothered to read the whole thing they’d find some useful examples of good practice and various practical, achievable recommendations. So, five years later, what progress has been made?

I fear that the answer is, ‘not much’. Some schools may have acted on the IoP’s recommendations, but the national initiative that made headlines in 2015 had evidently been forgotten by 2017, when the National Education Union (NEU) in association with UK Feminista conducted another study and produced a report entitled It’s Just Everywhere: A study on sexism in schools—and how we tackle it.

For anyone who’d read the IoP’s report two years earlier, this was déjà vu all over again. Once again, the researchers noted that ‘the use of sexist, misogynist language…is commonplace in schools’. In a sample of over 1600 teachers, almost two thirds of those who worked in mixed-sex secondary schools said they heard this kind of language at least weekly, and nearly a third said they heard it every day. Their further comments made clear they were not talking about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. Teachers expressed concern about boys discussing girls in language they described as ‘degrading, sexualised and offensive’ or even ‘violently misogynistic’; one interviewee reported that ‘sexually unacceptable/ threatening comments’ were made by certain boys both to girls and to female members of staff. Though the report treated sexist language and sexual harassment as separate issues, the accounts it reproduced showed that language played an integral part in many or most incidents of harassment.

In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like (Secondary school teacher)

Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years’ bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal (Female student)

In secondary schools, the use of sexist and misogynist language is no longer, if it ever was, a reciprocal, equal opportunity activity: it’s overwhelmingly a case of boys targeting girls with overtly sexual comments. And the effect on girls is not trivial. According to Girl Guiding UK, which conducts an annual survey with a sample of girls aged 11-16, fear of attracting these comments from boys makes many girls reluctant to draw attention to themselves; about a quarter report that they try not to speak in lessons. Even if most girls do not practise self-censorship, why should any girl (or indeed, anyone at all) be expected to spend 30+ hours a week in an environment where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence? Beyond its effects on girls’ academic education, what life-lessons is this experience teaching them?  

According to the NEU/Feminista study, few schools were making any systematic effort to tackle the problem. In their sample, 78% of students and 64% of teachers were not aware that their school had any policy on sexism (suggesting that even if one existed it wasn’t being followed), and only 20% of teachers had discussed the issue during their training. The report concluded with a list of recommendations: sexism should get more attention; schools should adopt explicit policies; teachers need specific training; students need opportunities to talk about it. This is all pretty obvious, and it’s also pretty similar to what the IoP came up with. So, three years later, has anything changed?

This month a book has been published which claims that something has indeed changed since 2017—but not, unfortunately, for the better. In her introduction to Men Who Hate Women, a tour of the misogynist subcultures of the online manosphere (incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs (‘men going their own way’) and other assorted men’s rights activists), Laura Bates explains that what prompted her to investigate these subcultures was hearing their language and their talking-points parroted by boys she met when she went into schools to talk about sexism. This hadn’t been a thing when she first started visiting schools, but two years ago she began to notice a change:

[Boys] were angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism. Men themselves were the real victims, they’d tell me, in a society in which political correctness has gone mad, white men are persecuted, and so many women lie about rape. In schools from rural Scotland to central London, I started hearing the same arguments. The hair rose on my arms when I realised that these boys, who had never met each other, were using precisely the same words and quoting the same false statistics to back up their claims. …These [online misogynist] groups have dug their claws into teenage boys across the country.

Laura Bates is among the feminists who place the ideas and activities of online misogynist groups in the conceptual frame of terrorism (this is a framing I have some reservations about, but in this post I’ll leave them aside). She is concerned that teenage boys, most of them more confused and lonely than violent and hateful, are being radicalised online, and recruited into an extremist movement which bears comparison with white nationalism or radical Islamism. Education, she believes, has an important role to play in countering this radicalisation, just as it does in the other cases. She suggests that schools could make use of the expertise that already exists in organisations like White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative, run by ‘men who hate men who hate women’.  

My own feelings about this proposal are mixed. I don’t dispute that some of the young men who are drawn to the manosphere are struggling with personal and social problems; but the thought that kept coming into my mind was ‘what about the girls?’ If schools are pushed into doing something about misogyny only because it’s been added to the list of extremist ideologies that can lead to acts of terrorism—and if what they do focuses on boys as potential victims of radicalisation—what does that say about our priorities? Where does it leave the victims’ victims?

I think that what schools most urgently need to address is the sexism of the ‘hidden curriculum’—what students are learning, not from explicit instruction, but through participating in the daily routines of school. It’s no use teaching formal lessons about the evils of sexism and misogyny if students’ whole experience outside those specific lessons shows them that in practice ‘no one thinks it’s a big deal’. In many schools, if the studies I’ve linked to are anything to go by, that’s exactly what their experience shows them. How much can sexism and misogyny matter if boys can verbally abuse girls with impunity, and girls’ only refuge is silence?

The most general lesson girls are learning from the experiences described in study after study is that their needs, rights and feelings are not important–or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ freedom. Until we as a society decide that this is intolerable, we will doubtless be presented with many more reports which highlight the same problems, make the same recommendations, are met with the same brief flurry of concern, and are then left to gather dust.

Sauce for the goose

My recent posts on male-as-norm language, To gender or not to gender and Default: male, did not go down well with everyone. I heard from one or two readers who thought I’d been a bit sweeping. Aren’t there, they asked, some cases where the unmarked term refers to a woman? And isn’t that just as problematic as the opposite?

Any feminist who draws attention to any kind of sexism will at some point be faced with this ‘sauce for the goose’ argument. It’s a particular favourite with men’s rights activists who claim that men are the real victims of sexual inequality. But it’s also popular with liberals, who maintain that sexism oppresses everyone. So, I thought I’d take a moment to consider their complaints. Are there areas of (English) usage that privilege the female over the male? And if there are, is that evidence that sexism ‘cuts both ways’?

My post about the gendering of occupational terms was prompted by all the obituaries that referred to Zaha Hadid as a ‘woman/female architect’, where her male equivalent would just have been called an ‘architect’. But it’s true there are some cases where this pattern is reversed: the unmarked form refers to a woman, and if you want to make clear you are referring to a man, you add the premodifier ‘male’. The classic examples are ‘nurse’ and ‘prostitute’. You might notice a pattern there, and I don’t think it has much to do with female privilege.

Are there any other words which mark male referents in a similar way?  Yes, actually; recently there’s been a bit of a vogue for terms which use ‘man’, in the sense of ‘male person’, as the first element in a compound (e.g. ‘manbun’) or a blend (‘manbag’, ‘manscara’, ‘mankini’). I say ‘in the sense of “male person”‘ to differentiate this new crop of ‘man’ words from older compounds like  ‘mankind’ and ‘manslaughter’, where the ‘man’ element historically meant just ‘person’, and the word’s meaning is still intended to be sex-inclusive. The new ‘man’ words are not sex-inclusive: in the cases I’ve just cited the meaning is something like ‘male version of a prototypically female item’. The female item gets the generic term (‘handbag’, ‘bun’, ‘mascara’) and the male version’s name is derived from that by sticking ‘man’ on the front.

Is that sexist?  Yes: but not because it privileges women over men. Its effect is to reinforce traditional gender norms by underscoring that certain things (many of them things that signify vanity and frivolity) are for the laydeez. If men adopt them (or, perhaps more to the point, if marketers want men to buy them) they need a special, manly label.

But there are some other recently popular ‘man’ terms which serve a different purpose. They name forms of behaviour that are considered not just prototypically male, but prototypical expressions of male entitlement. The words thus encapsulate a critical stance towards the behaviour in question, and sometimes a feminist analysis of it.

One of the best-known words in this category is ‘mansplain(ing)’, a term used to describe the practice of explaining something to a woman on the assumption that she must know less about it than the man providing the explanation. It was inspired by the writer Rebecca Solnit, whose essay ‘Men explain things to me’ featured a killer example: she’d had a conversation with a man who urged her to read an important book on her specialist subject, without realising she had actually written the book in question.

Because it’s linguistically a bit clunky, I didn’t initially think ‘mansplain’ would catch on; but in the event it got taken up quite widely, probably because the behaviour it named prompted a strong sense of recognition among women, and indeed among members of other groups with extensive experience of being patronized. Not only has ‘mansplain’ become part of the active vocabulary of feminism, it has generated a number of analogous terms like ‘whitesplain’ and ‘straightsplain’. It has also boosted the production of other terms naming related forms of entitled male behaviour, such as ‘manologue’ (men don’t just hold forth when they’ve got something to explain) and ‘mantrum’–though it remains to be seen whether these will prove to have the same staying-power.

Another word which appears to have prompted a similar ‘yes! we really needed a word for that’ reaction is ‘manspreading’, which names a physical expression of male entitlement (men sitting with their legs wide apart so they occupy more than their share of the available space). This term has been taken up not only in feminist circles, but also in official campaigns to encourage good manners on public transport.

Are these critical ‘man’ terms examples of anti-male sexism? Some men evidently think so: if you go to Urban Dictionary, you’ll see that they’re fighting back with ‘sauce for the goose’ entries like this one for ‘womansplain’:

When a woman attempts to tell a man how his brain works and what the motivations behind his various thoughts, words and actions are.

There’s an equally inventive entry for ‘womanspreading’:

The act by a woman to fill more than one seat, either by putting bags on the other seats or putting their feet on the seat across them [sic]. Way more common than manspreading—and more obnoxious—but feminists think it’s AOK.

You have to give the entry-writers points for effort, but these ‘woman’ terms are unlikely to become serious rivals to the ‘man’ words that inspired them, because they don’t fill what most people would regard as a genuine lexical gap. The definitions I’ve quoted do describe a form of behaviour that’s both recognizable and annoying, but in neither case is it a distinctively female form of behaviour in the way ‘manspreading’ is distinctively male. Consequently the terms come across as just tit-for-tat expressions of resentment–‘you’ve criticized us and we don’t like it, so we’re going to show you two can play at that game’.

But that’s not to say anti-feminists can never play the game successfully.  The over-the-top insult ‘feminazi’, for instance, which was first popularized in the 1990s, is still, as the writer Zoe Williams noted in the Guardian last year, ‘the go-to term for trolls out to silence women’. And another notable success is the recent promotion by men’s rights activists of what might be considered the ultimate ‘sauce for the goose’ word: ‘misandry’.

‘Misandry’ (meaning ‘hatred of men’) is meant to denote a phenomenon analogous to ‘misogyny’ (‘hatred of women’). But the two elements of this seemingly natural pairing, ‘misogyny/misandry’, have different histories: ‘misandry’ was created in a somewhat similar manner to the Biblical Eve, who was taken from Adam’s rib. Whereas ‘misogyny’ appears in English sources dating back to the mid-17th century,  ‘misandry’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered the language only in the 1880s. Though like ‘misogyny’ it has linguistic roots in ancient Greek, it was not borrowed directly from classical sources, but rather constructed on the model of ‘misogyny’ to fill the vacant slot for a gender-reversed equivalent.

The current generation of MRAs were obviously not responsible for this innovation (their Greek isn’t generally up to Victorian standards), but they were the ones who plucked ‘misandry’ from the obscurity in which it had languished for more than 100 years. Thanks to their efforts, ‘misandry’ and its derivative ‘misandrist’ have gone from being words almost no one had ever heard of (in my youth people just called feminists ‘man-haters’) to being words which many of us know only too well.

I don’t think the increased currency of ‘misandry’ reflects high levels of mainstream support for men’s rights activism as such, but I do think it is connected with the mainstream preference for liberal over radical political analysis. If you have a structural analysis of sexism (or any other -ism), you’re not going to think it ‘cuts both ways’: it’s a system in which one group dominates another. But if you think of social inequality less in terms of overarching power-structures and more as the result of the prejudiced attitudes held by individuals, it becomes reasonable to suggest that there are prejudiced individuals in every group, and that every group’s prejudices deserve the same condemnation.

This is the reasoning ‘misandry’ exploits: if we acknowledge the existence of misogyny, then in fairness we must also acknowledge its opposite. Every coin has two sides, right? And what’s sauce for the goose… The promoters of ‘misandry’ have also shown some astuteness by choosing to revive a learned-sounding, faux-classical term, which implies that the mythical balance between woman-hating and man-hating has been recognized and discussed since ancient times. ‘Misandry’ conceals what ‘feminazi’ and ‘womanspreading’ can’t–its status as an angry riposte to feminist criticisms of men and masculinity.

All this reminds me of an interesting argument about male-as-norm language which was put forward in the early 1980s by Maria Black and Rosalind Coward. Most feminists, then as now, were critical of the tendency for women, but not men, to be represented linguistically as sexed beings (the ‘female architect’/ ‘woman president’ problem), and mostly they believed that the way forward was to insist on using the same gender-neutral terms for everyone. Black and Coward argued, however, that the real problem wasn’t the relentless gendering of women so much as the de-gendering of men. As they saw it, ‘one of the major political problems confronting feminism [is] the need to force men to recognize themselves as men’. 

Men are sustained at the centre of the stage precisely because they can be ‘people’ and do not have to represent their masculinity to themselves. They need never see themselves or their maleness as a problem.

Simone de Beauvoir mentioned the same asymmetry in The Second Sex, remarking that any man could say to a woman ‘you think thus and so because you are a woman’, whereas it would be out of the question to retort ‘and you think the contrary because you are a man’. ‘For it is understood’, she wrote, ‘that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity’.

The terms that provoke an angry response from MRAs, like ‘mansplain’ and ‘manspreading’, are, precisely, terms that do treat the fact of being a man as a ‘peculiarity’ (that is, as something specific and distinctive). They describe men’s behaviour as gendered behaviour, and where they criticize it, they call on men to ‘see themselves [and] their maleness as a problem’. As feminists since Beauvoir have pointed out, that’s something most men have less experience of than most women. And evidently, some of them don’t enjoy the experience. They respond by calling it sexism, or ‘misandry’; but maybe a better name for it would be ‘sauce for the gander’.