Oh Hi Mark – I Would Love To Talk With You About Feminism

Hi Mark,

I read your article in the Irish Times on Wednesday. We are nominally in the same position – straight white guys trying to navigate conversations about feminism and sexism – and I see that you don’t want to be shut out of the conversation.


On reading your article, I can sort of see why you might be running into roadblocks, so in the interest of keeping you involved (because yes, you should be involved) I would like to start a conversation with you, beginning with a response to that article.

Paragraph by paragraph.

(N.B. I started writing this article before I came across Rob O’Sullivan’s absolutely brilliant dissection. Read it here. There is overlap, but that is because he’s right, and he shouldn’t have to say it alone.)


Woman hand up - HeadStuff.org

Carelessly entering a Twitter debate on feminism or sexism as a straight, white male can be a hazardous thing.

Carelessly entering any debate is a bad idea. Carelessly entering one on a topic you may not have a lived experience of is a really bad idea. I understand that you want to defend your gender as you may not have witnessed the behaviour that regularly features in these debates, but you have to understand that if you are a straight white guy, you’re not standing in the same place they are. Step one is research, open-mindness and listening.

It’s a bit like wandering into a coop full of angry chickens who have armed themselves with machine guns. They riddle you with bullets, then spit on your corpse and call you a nasty fox.

Whoa. What?! No it isn’t. First of all, this analogy is so clunky it could have its own Hasbro toy line. Secondly, it’s ridiculously tone-deaf to make a joke about your online arguments being like being riddled with bullets at the minute. Or ever, to be honest. No argument on the Internet is that.

But I have to ask – if this is your experience – what exactly is it you’re saying? Are you examining your arguments beforehand to make sure they’re watertight? Are you looking at the argument from every angle? If the reaction is so vitriolic, is there a chance you’re wrong, or that you’ve chosen the wrong language? Is there a chance you might not understand the implication of your words? What’s your overall goal? Is it to better understand the debate or to win it?

(Should you be characterising yourself as a ‘nasty fox in a henhouse?’)

We probably shouldn’t be surprised we get such rancour.

I found an analogy on Tumblr which has very much resonated with me on this point. I’m currently trying to find the original poster, but the text is as follows.

“Being a woman is kind of like being a cyclist in a city where all the cars represent men. You’re supposed to be able to share the road equally with cars, but that’s not how it works. The roads are built for cars and you spend a great deal of physical and mental energy being defensive and trying not to get hurt. Some of the cars WANT you to get hurt. They think you don’t have any place on the road at all. And if you do get hurt by a car, everyone makes excuses that it’s your fault.”

A commenter furthers the hypothesis by saying that you have to watch the cars ahead of you in case one of them opens their door, either thoughtlessly or actually to hurt you. And not all cars will do this, but you have to watch all of them all the same, or they will kill you.

I wouldn’t call it ‘rancour’ but I have experienced ‘wariness’ and this post has done a lot to make me understand why it’s justified.

Around these parts, at least, –

Which parts? Are you now a cowboy? Are you talking about Ireland? The West?

– straight, white men do most of the oppressing. Not all men, of course. But – and this is the important bit – never, ever say “not all men” on Twitter. That’s when the trouble starts.

No. This is the thing with ‘Not All Men,’ the problem that I, as another straight white guy, has with it.

Every time I have seen ‘Not All Men’ deployed, it has been done as an argument ender. As a counterpoint. As ‘enough.’ If I get mugged and run up to you on the street, your response shouldn’t be ‘how dare you suggest I would mug anyone, I’ve never mugged a person in my life,’ it should be to find out what happened and help.

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Everybody, even the most ardent feminist, knows that most men aren’t lecherous, drooling, breast-grabbing misogynists. That is not the point, they will tell you: all women have been subjected to some sort of unwanted male attention in a pub or at work or while walking down the street. This is probably true to varying degrees. And that is lamentable.

I’m going to pop on my pedantic editing hat here. If nobody’s saying that men are that, and if you’ve been told that’s not the point, why are you saying it here? You’re really losing the punch of the paragraph here, which is the fact that all women have been subjected to some sort of unwanted male attention in a pub or at work or while walking down the street.

Does that not strike you as horrifying? Remove that probablyit weakens your statement. You’re a journalist – ask around. Is what you’re saying true? Also consider what you mean when you say ‘to varying degrees.’ Picture in your head a scale, titled ‘unwanted male attention.’ Do you think anybody should be at any point on that scale? Do you think that scale should exist?

Also. ALSO. (And Mark, I am starting to understand why you may not do well in arguments.)

And that is lamentable.

It’s not a meteor strike, Mark. It’s not an Act of God. It is human behaviour, controlled by humans. Controlled by us. It is not lamentable. It is not rain on your BBQ, something you can wring your hands at but not affect. It is behaviour by people that hurt other people. And if you’re against it, if you’re really lamenting it, are you doing anything about it?

Some feminists clearly espouse that all men are complicit in this activity or are responsible for it in some way, whether or not they engage in it. You may not have slapped any backsides or pulled any bra straps, but you’re a man, the orthodoxy goes, and your collective predilection for dirty jokes causes other men to harass women.

I like jokes. However, there are certain jokes that I know make people uncomfortable or upset and so I don’t make them, because that is not the point of jokes. There is enough in the vast omniverse of human experience to make jokes about while avoiding certain issues. This wasn’t always the case, and occasionally I still slip up. Being careful of other people’s lives isn’t a switch, it’s a process.

But ‘jokes’ are the recourse of the harasser. Not just for women. Stand up to someone who says something horrible to you on the street and their response – if you’re lucky – is ‘ah I’m only messing, I’m only buzzing with you, I’m only having a laugh.’ It’s the smokescreen they throw up to cover the fact they just insulted or harassed someone, but in fairness it’s an honest one.

‘I’m only having a laugh.’

Very true. They’re having a laugh. You’re not. You’re angry or upset or frightened. But they don’t care whether you are or not. And laughter is reinforcing, and everyone loves an audience, and if they know their audience will laugh they will do it again, and what’s really being reinforced is the notion that this is allowed, that this is fine, that this is good.

It isn’t long before they can divorce themselves from thinking of you as a person at all.

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You’re not supposed to object to this stupid proposition.

You’re writing an article in a national newspaper objecting to it. How muzzled do you think you are?

Not if you’re a man. If you do, you’re derailing the debate and bringing the focus back on to your own sorry, privileged self. It’s not about you, Mr Man. It’s about women. Right? Some would argue this is completely wrong. Of course it’s about men too.

But ‘Not All Men,’ right? How much involvement do you want in dealing with sexism? Because you get to choose. Women don’t.

Or at least the debate about who is responsible for sexism and how best to curb it should involve all men, if your aim is to actually improve the situation by influencing the actions of other people. Perhaps not if you are simply blasting out a rigid ideology fuelled by divisive, angry rhetoric.

I’m sorry that you don’t feel listened to. I actually am. But in order to participate productively in a debate, you have to hear out other viewpoints, if only to analyse them and see if you accept or reject them. And you have to think about how your viewpoints are coming across.

Your language above is poorly-thought out. Comments like ‘Not all men, of course,’ and ‘and this is lamentable’ are passing the buck, passing the blame, washing your hands. It’s frustrating to have a conversation with someone like that, when wading through abuse is a daily struggle. I don’t have to wade through it, and I found this article immensely frustrating, because on one side you’re talking about how terrible it is that you’re not being listened to in the debate of how to cure sexism, and on the other you’re saying ‘Not All Men’ and nothing else.

Last week, one prominent Irish feminist blogger detailed on Twitter a litany of her experiences with men, which she admitted may have coloured her views to make her “seem anti-men”.

A couple of the experiences involved crass comments that someone as articulate as the blogger should have had no problem rebutting.

Other experiences outlined by her, such as fending off groping hands from her breasts or up her skirt, were much more sinister.

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As an experiment, the next time you hear someone make an offensive joke call them on it. You’re a journalist, you should be able to put it in such terms that they completely change position. Then do it again. And again.

Read the comments section on just about any article on feminism or rape culture, and try and dissuade the commenter from saying the things they say. Pick the very worst. You’re articulate, you should have them converted in just a few paragraphs.

I wish being articulate just changed people’s minds. But we both know it doesn’t. And it’s a very different thing typing it than saying it to a group of drunk lads towering over you in a club.

Sinister is a better word than lamentable, but again, not a meteor strike. It was human males who did that. Guys you could know. Guys you statistically have to have known at some point in your life. And you do seem like you want to be involved with the stopping of that.

You don’t want to talk to feminists? Fine. Talk to everyone else. Your kids, younger relations, younger mates, older mates, mates with kids – anyone at all. If there’s a way you can make sure that they know that you view that behaviour as lamentable and sinister, that you wouldn’t stand for it, that you would stand against it – do so. You never need to have an argument about it on Twitter again.


One commenter then drew a parallel with the recent Stanford University sexual assault case, where a champion swimmer begged for leniency after he was caught defiling an unconscious woman. The blogger replied referencing “all men [and] their collusion” in such acts. Nobody batted a digital eyelid.

I had a conversation with my friend and writer Deirdre Sullivan about this sentence, and she pointed out something I hadn’t even realised. Which is a part of having conversations as a straight white guy. There are things you just don’t see. And that isn’t necessarily your fault, and I’ve never been attacked by a feminist for it. What might prompt wariness is an inability to accept that blindness.

Defile (v) to make foul, dirty, or unclean; pollute; taint; debase. 2. to violate the chastity of. 3. to make impure for ceremonial use; desecrate. 4. to sully, as a person’s reputation.

It’s a word choice I hadn’t considered. To quote Deirdre, ‘Brock Turner didn’t defile her. It’s called rape, and it doesn’t ruin a woman. ‘Rape taints a woman’ is a dangerous and nasty implication. It smacks of acid attacks. Rape taints a rapist. It hurts a woman.’

And I understand totally that you didn’t see that. I didn’t see it either on first reading. I did see that you refer to him as a ‘champion swimmer’ and not ‘a rapist,’ which is what he is. Words matter. And again, it’s a process. I’m really learning as well.

My question to you now is whether you would use that word again. Because nobody’s muzzling guys, or shouting over them. What we’re being asked to do – as guys on the street, not lawmakers or CEOs or employers, that’s a whole other issue – is think of the empathic fallout from the words we use. Think of the way they’re being heard, by the people you’re writing about.

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People’s personal experiences are their own and everyone should be encouraged to share them, if they wish, and how they were hurt. And they should be listened to. But to effectively say “all men collude” with sexual assault is a different matter entirely. It’s not quite “all men are rapists or potential rapists”, but it is in the neighbourhood.

‘The neighbourhood,’ like ‘these parts,’ is not a definable unit of distance. What they are saying, to my understanding, is ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ And believe me Mark, writing an article where you say that sexual harassment of half the planet’s population is ‘lamentable’ and then immediately skip to why it’s nothing to do with you is almost the textbook definition of ‘nothing.’

(Unless you count the fact that plenty of men might read this and vow to laugh a little harder the next time someone catcalls a woman, just to prove they’re not ‘cowed by the feminists.’)

This isn’t simply a pointless whine about how common these sort of sweeping generalisations have become in feminist debate. It isn’t just that it is offensive to some men. It is damaging to the situation at hand.

What situation at hand? You have devoted three lines to the situation at hand. You’ve said it was ‘lamentable’ and ‘sinister,’ like the ghost of Lord Byron, not for a second acknowledging that maybe ‘Not All Men, but definitely ‘Some Men,’ and enough men that it is clearly a problem. You agree it’s a problem. But your priority seems to be how much that problem is affecting you, and not solving it.

Men are generally in a better position than most women to influence the actions of other men. We socialise with other men differently than women, we talk to each other differently, and we spend more time with men in work and play than most women do. You want the word about unwanted harassment to be heard by men? Then do it through other men.

This is actually not the worst sentence ever written. I would definitely argue that it is the job of men to educate other men, as much or more (definitely more) than the women whose job it is just weathering that harassment. My question is – if you agree with that, are you doing it? Or are you writing articles about why it’s not your problem?

In the 1970s, the concept of rape culture – the frankly debatable notion that we all collude in a system of norms that ultimately concludes with the rape of women – was just a theory propagated by second-wave feminists.

Now it seems to be accepted as conventional wisdom, despite its obvious potential to alienate people.

Yes, being told that you have colluded in a system of norms that oppresses and sexualises and bullies women while allowing rapists to walk free or serve desperately short sentences is alienating.

No. I mean it. It is. This is something I actually do want to say. I can understand men’s absolute terror at the notion of rape culture. I can one hundred percent identify with rejecting the idea that you are part of a system this dystopian and pervasive. You don’t want to accept it. You want to deny it, separate yourself from it, hide from it, pretend that it’s fiction.

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And what this paragraph says to me is that you can’t anymore. It is becoming conventional thinking because every new goddamn day there is another horrifying statistic or news story. Beyond that, beyond those black words on a white screen, there is every story you’ve ever heard from your female friends about their day. There’s the time you heard two mates joke about how relieved they were that a date walked them home and didn’t make an argument about coming in. Or the time you had to pretend to be someone’s boyfriend in Coppers just so a guy would leave them alone because he wouldn’t listen to her.

He wouldn’t listen to her.

If you’ve never heard any of these things, if ten minutes’ work doesn’t harvest a crop of them from the women in your life, then I applaud you, because I am kept up at night by the thought of it.

It can be difficult to engage with many online debates about feminism or sexism as a man, especially when you are cast with this unwashable stain of original sin. It drives many reasonable people away from the entire conversation.

You want to wash this stain away? Start scrubbing. And stare into the fact that maybe there is a problem, and maybe there is something you can do about it. Also, you compared talking to women to being shot at by chickens before they spit on your corpse. Do you think that’s reasonable?

Boo-hoo for you, feminists usually retort.

I am now less convinced you had an argument with feminists and more convinced it was with a cartoon from the fifties.

But if you drive men away from the conversation, then you drive them away from spreading your word.

I am genuinely asking you this – my email’s on the contact page – what way do you want them to talk? What combination of facts and journalism and prose and human beings talking would convince you? Do you think that maybe some of the frustration that you’re experiencing comes from trying to square-peg square-hole the notion of rape culture into your brain while also trying to (and this is not hyperbole) survive it?

Anti-thought barracking

Since it first emerged around 2014, the #NotAllMen hashtag has become the knee-jerk method for feminists to sarcastically shut down men in a debate. What, you’re a man raising a concern over the veracity of the concept of rape culture? Let’s #NotAllMen his hide and alert feminists all over the globe to his whiny, disordered thinking.

You do literally say ‘Not All Men, of course,’ above. You refuse to admit that rape culture exists, you adamantly deny any part in it and nowhere state that you could do anything about it.

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That way, nobody actually has to address what is being said. It is dog- whistle mockery, anti-thought barracking at its worst.

The loudest feminists, the ones who monopolise the oxygen in debates on Twitter, are not debating at all, of course. They are activists who have little interest in hearing perspectives outside of their own orthodoxy. But they sure are angry.

Aristotle, who was a man when men used to wear skirts –

Is this a joke? Are you making a joke? What does this sentence even mean?

– used to say that anyone can get angry, because it is easy. “But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy.”

If he was around today, he’d probably be mansplaining.

Who is the right person? What is the right degree? What is the right way? I don’t know what it is. Nobody I know seems to either. One moment we have podcasts discussing cases where women were made stare their rapist in the face in court and then locked up in a cell because the experience was so traumatic they tried to take their own life. The next we have an article detailing how women have driven you away from an argument you clearly state has nothing to do with you, is not about you, and yet you demand to be a part of. You’re not willing to learn the language of it, accept the limits of your experience on it, and you want it packaged in a certain way.

I have a better question, and an offer. What do you want? Because – and this is genuine – I would like to help. You’re right. Men do listen to men.

(I hate that about us, by the way. I hate that a woman can call a man on his behaviour, and it takes me saying ‘Yeah!’ for them to understand the words that came out of another human’s mouth. I hate that the quickest road to making some men understand that women are people comes from putting them in the context of their relationship with a man. I hate it.)

So let’s go for a pint. I’ll listen to you. I’ll apologise for the Hasbro joke. I won’t ‘spit on your corpse’ or anything. I will hear you out, and read any reading material you bring, if you do the same.

You want to be a part of the conversation? Let’s converse.

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