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The problem with male feminists Men shouldn't forget the importance of sex

Yeah, but are they? (Photo: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Yeah, but are they? (Photo: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)


June 17, 2021   6 mins

According to a recent training document produced for Oxfam, white women need to ask ourselves whether we’re causing harm by fighting sexual violence. Our whining, we’re told, “legitimises criminal punishment, harming black and other marginalised people”.

The progressive world has a long and ignoble history of downplaying sexual misconduct for the sake of “the cause”. One such incident nearly tore the Socialist Workers’ Party apart in 2013, long before #MeToo, when a senior party member was accused of rape.

The female accuser didn’t go to the police, because she believed that the party’s hostility to the thin blue line meant involving them would result in her expulsion from the party. Instead, the SWP handled the matter internally — and she was told the accused was suspended from the party and told him to read up on feminism.

A glance at the track record of prominent male feminists, though, suggests that this may not have helped. Being an outspoken male supporter of gender equality is no shield against accusations of improper behaviour.

Take, for example, former GQ political editor Rupert Myers, who berated men’s rights activists as “cave-dwelling idiots” for denying the existence of “rape culture”. Being a self-styled feminist was no defence against a social media mobbing, though. When allegations circulated online at the height of #MeToo about Myers’s sexual behaviour, prompting a Twitter pile-on, Myers ended up being fired by the magazine.

Nor is he the only one: other male feminist journalists who faced #MeToo allegations included Sam Kriss and Vice’s Michael Hafford. Even the Ground Zero of #MeToo himself, Harvey Weinstein, complained in 2019 about how the accusations against him have “eviscerated” his pioneering work in gender equality.

This isn’t a purely #MeToo phenomenon either. During the GamerGate controversy of 2014, a number of male journalists spoke out in defence of women — more than 15 of whom have since been accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment and rape to consuming child pornography.

My aim here isn’t to re-litigate the rights and wrongs of every alleged misplaced hand, or ill-judged joke, so much as to wonder at this startling volume of “male feminists” at least alleged to be on the pervy side. Surely a commitment to feminism would have the opposite effect. Why, then, so many self-identified male feminists dogged by rumours of sexual misconduct?

Men’s rights activists might argue that in a climate where calls to “believe women” come thick and fast, even the most ambiguous situation can easily be weaponised to destroy a man’s career. Men accused of impropriety have claimed that the real motivation was politics — or simply a bad breakup.

To this the feminists might retort, following Mandy Rice-Davies, that they would say that, wouldn’t they. Everyone wants to believe the best about themselves, something that leads to what social psychology calls “moral licensing”. This concept argues that people justify ethically dodgy behaviour by referring to a past track record of virtue.

For example, one Stanford study showed that people who loudly proclaim anti-racist views are often, in practice, more racist than average. Are men who identify as feminist more prone to sexual misbehaviour because they imagine their political beliefs put them beyond reproach?

A radical feminist might reply, though, that imagining it’s merely self-deception is to misunderstand what feminism is. In this view, since patriarchy arranges men hierarchically over women, it’s impossible by definition for a male to be a feminist. Regardless of a man’s intentions, as long as patriarchy exists he’ll always be an oppressor; he will inevitably end up imposing his own patriarchal presumptions — and sometimes sexual attentions — when they’re not wanted.

But part of the difficulty is precisely in determining where sexual attentions might be wanted. There are, of course, clear-cut and inexcusable cases of rape and sexual assault. But some of the cases above provoked intense controversy precisely because the circumstances of the accusation were highly subject to (inevitably partisan) interpretation.

And one under-discussed fact that complicates these controversies is that women do not, under every single circumstance, categorically hate men being sexually forward. In ‘BDSM’ circles, for example, numerous studies have shown that women are significantly more likely than men to fantasise about being dominated.

And enjoying male assertiveness isn’t just a kink among the whips-and-chains brigade. One study showed that 93% of women prefer to be asked out, rather than asking. Once in a relationship, too, a lack of male sexual initiative often makes women unhappy. Clinical psychologist Marianne Brandon, for example, describes how frequently female patients express frustration with male sexual partners who have learned that “to show respect to their female partners” they must “avoid at all costs any behaviour in the bedroom that may be regarded as aggressive or dominant”. In other words, male sexual initiative is often quite popular with women.

But not always. The same action might come across as deliciously confident in one context, but repulsively creepy in another. And the sheer volume of #MeToo accusations suggests something has gone very wrong how men and women assess which is which.

The institutional takeaway from #MeToo seems to have been that the solution to such unhappy encounters is more feminism, more consent and more bureaucracy for punishing people who get the context wrong. But if in fact women quite like at least a measure of male sexual initiative, provided it’s in the right context, then we may need not less aggression but better guidelines on context.

And here we face the troubling possibility that all these handsy male feminists weren’t overly forward because they were doing liberal feminism wrong, but because they took its lessons too literally.

For core among these lessons is the idea that men and women are basically the same apart from our dangly bits. As the quintessential liberal pop-feminist (and UN feminist advocate) actress Emma Watson put it: feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” It is, Watson tells us, “about giving women choice […] It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality.”

And yet however loudly we bang the drum for equality, there remain some clear and well-documented differences between the sexes. Perhaps, as this UN Women training booklet does, this is a consequence of sexist male socialisation. But a simpler explanation is that humans are, while capable of rationality, also evolved animals — and that this translates to some normative differences in attitude and behaviour. For example, males commit 90% of all sexual assaults, and almost all violent crime.

Of course, suggesting male aggression (including sexual aggression) may have some basis in evolution isn’t to argue it’s always good. But it is to argue that education is unlikely to get rid of it entirely. And if this is true, the core reason there are so many male feminist sex pests may simply be because they’re male. No amount of feminist “education” will alter this basic fact — even if women wanted to, which (at least according to Dr Marianne Brandon) is by no means universally the case.

If anything, sending a lechy male feminist off to read liberal feminism, like the SWP did, may make matters worse — for doing so will entrench the belief that differences between the sexes are pure social constructs. And a man who’s signed up to this worldview has no reason to imagine his sexual desires differ in any way from those of a woman he finds attractive. We are, he might point out, totally over the sexist stereotypes of women as pure vestal virgins — aren’t we?

This belief that men and women are essentially the same leaves both sexes chronically at risk of misunderstanding human sexuality. A measure of male sexual aggression is neither entirely a social construct nor wholly curable via education. It has a biological substrate. And it’s not even undesirable to women, provided it’s in the right context. But managing it takes a measure of realism, compromise and — sometimes — a willingness to adopt social norms that treat the sexes differently.

This is anathema to the liberal feminist doctrine of sameness, a worldview so committed to ignoring any biological element to sex differences it’s bound to leave men ill-equipped to recognise and restrain their own sexual aggression. And on the other side, this doctrine of sameness leaves women shorn of social strategies for evading that aggression, leading to the (anecdotally common) phenomenon of women consenting to unwanted sex largely out of politeness. And it’s somewhere in this murky territory, I suspect, that many of the most controversial accusations of impropriety occur.

Then both sexes, wounded and perplexed as to what has gone wrong on the battlefield of intimacy, turn to supposedly neutral but in fact highly politicised procedures and pseudo-legal means of redress, in the hope that someone can adjudicate on who was right and who wrong. No one ever stops to wonder if part of the problem is that everyone is working off faulty assumptions.

What is to be done? At least if internet gossip is to be believed, teaching men to be feminists isn’t doing the trick. But contra received opinion, we may not help matters either by trying to demolish sexist stereotypes about male and female sexuality. Instead, if we’re to navigate our differences honestly in the interests of intimacy, we may need a feminist project to resurrect them.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Tony Taylor
TT
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Male feminists are just hoping to pull.

George Glashan
GG
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

“sneaker f@$ckers” as Gad Saad has called them, a mating strategy for passive aggressive males. That’s sneaker as in sneaky not the shoe, that other type of “sneaker f@$cker” also exist but they are more dangerous to high heels than the women wearing them.

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

This goes back years. When I was at University they were the ones that were not attractive and lacked personality. They were, however, absolutely persistent presumably hoping that the target of their attentions would eventually throw in the towel particularly after a drink or two.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Tony, that’s it. I was going to say the same using 10x the number of words. You brought perfection to the table.

A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
2 years ago

For example, one Stanford study showed that people who loudly proclaim anti-racist views are often, in practice, more racist than average.

That sounds especially true of one Robin D Angelo – author of White Fragility. Who seems to have concluded that because she herself seemed to hold a lot of racist assumptions, that therefore all white people were like her and needed purging of their racist demons. Clown.

Caroline Watson
CW
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

Having worked with livestock for nearly 40 years, the differences between male and female humans can be seen very clearly. If other mammals do something it’s sex-based and, if only humans do it, it’s a social construct.
Young males fighting over females or territory is the same in every species, as is the need for females to protect their young; the idiots who are killed ‘exercising their rights’ to walk through fields of cows with calves at foot find that out!
Nature’s aim for every species is its continuance and, to do this in mammals, there are two sexes with particular breeding-related physiology and behaviours. Animals do not wear clothes, give each other verbal names (although they clearly recognise each other), do housework, play sports or earn money. All those things are human social constructs with human preconceptions and prejudices imposed upon them. Breeding-related differences are entirely inherent.

Hendrik Mentz
HM
Hendrik Mentz
2 years ago

Very worrying analysis, illustrating for me just how successful critical theory has been at dismantling our innate sense of being human.

Laura Creighton
LC
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

According to a recent training document produced for Oxfam, white women need to ask ourselves whether we’re causing harm by fighting sexual violence. Our whining, we’re told, “legitimises criminal punishment, harming black and other marginalised people”.

I am very curious about this. If it was part of some platform that asserts that criminal punishment doesn’t deter violence, and wants to replace it with counselling, or programs where the violent are removed to live-in accomodation where they are taught anger-management and other civilising behaviours, then one could at least imagine that the author(s) of this document were aiming for a world without sexual violence.
If the thrust was that ‘violence’ has been so broadly defined that non-violent black and marginalised people are getting accused of violence by white women who see ‘was I made uncomfortable’ as a reasonable definition of what constitutes violence, and who may be aiming to return to a time when ‘those darkies wouldn’t ever dream of looking at a white women’ because miscegenation makes them really, really uncomfortable — then I might even agree with the statement.
But, without context, it is difficult to not go for the most straight-forward interpretation of the document, namely that sexual violence is something that non-white women should put up with and that women like me, who are perfectly fine with criminalising violence should just be more accepting of it, at least when it happens to black and marginalised people as ‘an insignificant cultural difference’.
So, I’ll bite. Not being one of those people who define violence as ‘I was made uncomfortable’ but rather some composite of what I have seen at the emergency rooms of various hospitals, I have no problem with the legitimising of criminal punishment for criminal violence. I’m all for harming and marginalising dangerous violent criminals by locking them up, until we can be reasonably certain they don’t pose a danger to the rest of us, even though for many of them the answer may well be ‘never’.

Laura Creighton
LC
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

Still confused. The whole point of reporting rape, assault and harassment is to get people to lose their jobs and be locked up. That is precisely why you do this. The idea that raping and assaulting a white woman is only a crime if done by a white man strikes me as racism, pure and simple. Am I understanding you correctly that this is the outcome that Oxfam wants?

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Yes, Laura, I believe you are. Criminal punishment harms criminals, criminals are black, therefore criminal punishment harms blacks. So white feminists should do nothing that harms blacks, such as reporting sexual violence committed against them by blacks, in case a black criminal is punished.
I don’t see any other way to read it. It’s an unusually explicit exposition of the racism of the professional anti-racist.

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“In ‘BDSM’ circles, for example, numerous studies have shown that women are significantly more likely than men to fantasise about being dominated.”
Though as somebody said, no woman fantasises about being dominated by a man dressed as a liberal

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Every woman adores a Fascist

-Sylvia Plath.
She’d be cancelled for writing that today.

Dan Gleeballs
DG
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Simon Coulthard
GD
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Conservative women are just more fun in bed than lefties these days cos they won’t get offended by the humanity of it all 🙂

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

The simpler explanation is that they’re just creeps.

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Cynical creeps. Credit where it is due.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Good point.

Sharon Overy
SO
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

I hardly think more feminism is the answer!

As men can find themselves accused of sexual harassment for asking a woman out if she doesn’t welcome it, under the idea of ‘unwanted sexual attention’, the only safe thing for men is to become psychic or gay!

Seeing the ridiculousness of young women, if our sons grow up to be gay, we’ll be profoundly relieved.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“white women need to ask ourselves whether we’re causing harm by fighting sexual violence. Our whining, we’re told, “legitimises criminal punishment, harming black and other marginalised people”
All this means is that white women have been relegated below black men in the victim hierarchy. The use of the word “whining” implies that in the mind of the writer sexual violence is a trivial matter, at least when perpetrated by a black man on a white woman. it looks like feminist logic applied to a race issue.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago

Well, Mary, if any of us were budding male feminists, you’ve now got us running for cover!
I’m not keen on any -isms really, whether it’s feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, communism or even capitalism. Not because there isn’t some truth in each but because in practice they are divisive. They seek opponents on whom they focus wrath or disdain in order to bring them down.
The only way we can become our best is if we work together recognising difference, listening to one another and working for our common good. Despite the needs that #metoo demonstrated, it has become divisive and made men more wary of women. I say that as someone who is so impressed by women as I have grown to value them and their impressive contributions to society. But I can still banter with them as family and friends especially over our differences. Men and women have got to learn to understand one another, overcome weakness together and aim to draw the best out of one another.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I would consider myself a fringe feminist in some issues, like trans in sports, children, safe spaces.
I also don’t think there is complete equal opportunity yet between the sexes in the workplace in many countries and I think there is work to be done there. In order to be equal, women have often got to be better and I (subtly) employed more women than men throughout my career on the premise that you get more bang for your buck. Naughty me.
On the other hand I don’t agree with equity (which just lowers standards). I don’t think men are automatically the enemy – I like a lot of men. There are big differences between men and women (yes Jordan Peterson). I think too many movements go too far… just like #metoo. Everyone climbing on the bandwagon with some ludicrous claims that simply discredit a credible movement. And I like flirting.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I like a lot of men” That is very gracious of you

Simon Coulthard
GD
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago

I can see the point she was trying to making with that sentence – but that point always comes out schmultzy no matter how you word it

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

Do you want to look again at that sentence. Try it this way
I don’t think women are automatically the enemy – I like a lot of women.

Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Having worked in large corporations recently, I found that men need to be much better to be offered promotion when competing with a woman candidate.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago

Only creeps flirt?

Jos Vernon
Jos Vernon
2 years ago

Mary that is a superb bit of writing.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Why would a man say he was a feminist? Either to defend something he’d done or just to be one of the crowd – an ‘in’ person, somebody who is ‘savvy’, worldly wise, ‘with it’, special.

He could believe that women have a problem with equality and wants to show his ‘woman-ness’ and understanding. What a boring man! Instead, why can’t he be proud of himself?

The idea of sameness is ridiculous because men and women are not the same. Otherwise there would be a frightening world containing men and men or, just as frightening, women and women. Suicide job.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

I’m really glad I’m not a feminist. Word to the wise, ladies. When a bloke is being crass, it’s because he’s a bloke, not because he hates women. You might be hearing “oink, oink, oink” coming out of his mouth, but he’s hearing David Niven at a dinner party.

leah purcell
leah purcell
1 year ago

“patriarchy arranges men hierarchically over women” this is an exact example of it. If a man was just ‘being a bloke’ and hating women it would be blown over because of this exact idea/concept. Even if he wasn’t it would 90% of the time be used as an excuse to do so. Don’t go around saying bs like this.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago

Whenever people loudly proclaim their virtue I assume they are in fact the opposite. Male feminists have always creeped me out, but self righteous environmental types do so as well. I think it is the result of coming up in a religious school system where the Christian Brothers displayed behaviours that were literally the opposite of the Christian ideals they professed.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
2 years ago

Erm…..come on……predators circulate around their prey. DUH!

Andrew D
AD
Andrew D
2 years ago

Blimey, it’s a minefield, so glad I’m no longer in the mating game. If I was I’d be looking into conversion therapy – can somebody please make me gay?

Mark Vernon
MV
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

My inner William Blake is crying out for us to notice the “minute particulars” over the “generalisations”. If intimacy is subject to categories aren’t individuals only increasingly going to forget how to be intimate?

Simon Coulthard
GD
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago

This is a brilliantly written article

Simon Coulthard
GD
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago

Bill Burr sums it up better than we do –

https://youtu.be/8D0ZygYEw1c

Alan Tonkyn
AT
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago

No he doesn’t, Simon. Just more crass foul-mouthed boorishness masquerading as comedy.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

Well done. Did it work? Did she touch it?

Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

Bill Burr’s going to be really surprised when he finds out he’s not a comedian

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

Why did the threaded conversation Jon Redman and I had about what does Oxfam mean get removed from the reply I made yesterday (which is still there)?

William Jackson
William Jackson
2 years ago

There are rather too many ….ists in the world, to my mind the only one that counts has the word human before it.

Alison Wren
AW
Alison Wren
2 years ago

Men really can’t be feminists only allies. Women need to work with other women for liberation, equality feminism hasn’t really cut the mustard imo!

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

What do Western women need to be liberated from ?

Principally, their own faults.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

This belief that men and women are essentially the same…”
I don’t subscribe to the above. But I do believe in equality between the sexes, albeit with obvious exceptions. Does anyone here disagree with that statement?
Does that make me, a white man in his 50s, a feminist? Probably. Am I a sex pest or abuser? Certainly not!
Pointless article.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

Equal means identical/same. Either men are equal to women or they’re not equal.
So if they’re equal then sport segregated by gender is:
1) Misandristic
2) Misogynistic.
3) Irrational.
Feminists demanding their equality look for mandatory quotas to ensure ‘equal treatment’ in board rooms and politics.
Well, perhaps we need a similar quota system with regard to incarceration. Let’s set a target of at least 40% of inmates being female within 10yrs.
How to achieve that? Enact a law that criminalises nagging – a most heinous crime that causes so much human suffering and is not only premeditated but also sustained over long periods of time.
How about a minimum mandatory sentence of 7 years?
It shouldn’t take 10 yrs to reach our target quota.

Just a thought!

Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

“…albeit with obvious exceptions.”