So it’s happened again. A woman – in this instance, Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas – has raised the topic of bullying and harassment in the House of Commons, only to be reminded that worse things happen in less privileged environments.
This is something certain women tend to forget. Thankfully there’s usually a male journalist on hand to remind us of our “not experiencing as much sexism as we could be experiencing” privilege. In this case it was Andrew Neil, who managed not only to draw comparisons between middle-class MPs and abused young women in Telford, but to then inform Lucas there was “no comparison […] None. Don’t make it”.
Neil is not the first man to advise women on how best to redirect their feminist efforts. Whether it’s Piers Morgan lecturing Women’s Marchers on the plight of their Saudi sisters, or Fox News’ John Moody reminding #metoo campaigners that FGM is worse than groping, perhaps we should salute the courage of those who have been brave enough to say “look! Over there!” whenever critiques of male power have got a little too close to home.
After all, these men have the germ of a point. While all acts of misogyny take place on a continuum, as expressions of a pervasive devaluation of women’s bodies and lives, it is true that some acts are objectively worse than others. A slap on the arse might remind me of other, worse abuses – or of the potential for them to happen – but given the choice, I’d much rather experience that than rape or mutilation. Therefore one might justifiably say that feminists should invest their time and energy where it is needed most.
If we haven’t been doing this – if we have reached a point where, too distracted by glass ceilings and red carpet hashtags, we have left severely abused women and girls with only Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan to fight their corner – then truly, we should all be ashamed. If this country’s refuges are now being run by harried male journos – if they’re the ones campaigning on behalf of trafficked women, abuse survivors, victims of coercive control – if it’s Morgan and Neil standing up in parliament, reading out the names of more than 100 women killed by men over the past year alone – then surely it’s for them to tell us how it’s done.
And yet, beyond sending condescending tweets, it appears these men have been doing sod all. The day-to-day shitwork of cleaning up the mess left by male violence carries on, largely unnoticed, not least because it tends to be done by the very working-class women whose interests Neil et al claim to represent. When working-class victims and carers in cases such as Rotheram and Telford have spoken for themselves, men in positions of power have disbelieved them. What use is one woman’s testimony if it can’t be used to discredit that of another?
The absolute, stinking lack of sincerity of men who exploit one example of men’s abuse of women to trivialise another would be bad enough if abuse were some free-floating, unavoidable problem that women just had to face. It isn’t, though. Misogyny is so deeply embedded in society it feels normal, like the weather. Nonetheless, while it would be self-indulgent to complain of the rain when others are facing a tsunami, it is not self-indulgent to tell the man who is harassing you to desist. The fact that other men elsewhere might be doing worse is neither here nor there. Respect for women is not some scarce resource which must be distributed only to those who need it most. There is enough for everyone.
That’s even assuming that middle-class, professional women do only ever experience a kind of “abuse lite”. When middle-class men play off low-level sexual harassment – that is, the kind of abuse carried out by “men like us” – against FGM and grooming scandals, the implicit message is “men like us don’t do the really bad stuff”. This is a particularly useful thing to claim if in fact the opposite is true.
Regardless of background, the men from whom women and girls have most to fear are those closest to them: partners, boyfriends, husbands, fathers. When it comes to hiding severe abuse, middle-class men benefit not just from being accorded greater credibility than their working-class counterparts, but from being able to portray the women around them as spoilt and naive. It is easy for middle-class men to mock their female counterparts as selfish, wannabe victims. Perhaps they should consider how much easier it is for middle-class women to start small, calling out the groping boss, rather than going straight for the nice, respectable husband who’s promised to kill you should you ever try to leave.
Men do not know how much sexist abuse and violence an individual woman has experienced in her lifetime. They have no idea where the abuse she may be highlighting now sits alongside all the abuse that has happened before, and all the abuse that is yet to come. They have no right whatsoever to advise a woman on how best to use her time, energy or “urgent questions”.
Like the visitor who keeps stomping dog shit all over your carpet then complaining that you’ve “missed a bit” whenever you try to clean up, the sexist who advises on sexism is worse than useless. He has no interest in helping you out, only in masking his own complicity. Don’t listen to him.