In 2018, while working on a writing project, my home for several months was a small cottage on the banks of the Periyar river in rural South India. In the evenings, I would walk along the river to a footbridge that offered a dramatic view of Kerala’s magenta sunsets. Local people would gather there in the coolness of the evening. I soon befriended a group of women. We would walk and talk together. One evening, having lingered longer than I intended, darkness was falling as I stepped off the bridge to return home. I heard one of the women call to me, “Be careful, sister, take care.” I smiled and waved, deciding to take the local village road rather than the river path. It was darker than I expected, with few streetlights. My eyes quickly adjusted, and I could see the odd flickering lamp of small houses scattered through the lush undergrowth. I hurried forward; the road was deserted. Barely five minutes had passed when I became aware of a presence behind me.
Instinctively my senses heightened. I quickened my steps, trying to gauge the distance between streetlights. Turning briefly, I glimpsed the silhouette of a male figure in the darkness. He appeared to be drawing closer… or was I imagining it? The road was still empty apart from the two of us. I estimated I had another ten minutes before reaching the turnoff to the lane that led to my cottage; where I knew I had neighbours., I quietly accelerated my pace. The distance between us was definitely narrowing. Heart beating, fear now palpably coursed through my body. Fighting back the impulse to run, I focused on the streetlamp ahead. His footsteps were now audible. My mind began to race…. should I stop and challenge my apparent stalker?
Suddenly the lane leading to my cottage appeared ahead. I broke into a sprint those final metres and turned onto the familiar path. Melting into the shadows, I waited to see if the stranger trailing me would follow. No one passed by the lane entrance. He had vanished. I will never know if this was in fact a stranger ominously tracking me, or someone simply making their way home. Trembling, I remained in hiding for several minutes until the adrenalin subsided.
Later that night, alone on my balcony, I contemplated the familiar cautionary words universally passed from mothers to daughters, sisters to friends. “Be careful”…. But careful of what? South India is known for its tiger population. But there were no tigers in this area. However, I had understood clearly, prior to any thought, what my friend was warning me against: the potential threat posed by men under the cover of darkness. The ‘givenness’ of this was startling; shocking in the normalcy of its presumption, and the everydayness of its reality. As this sunk in, I wondered what the world would be like if the roles were reversed, and men lived with the warning to beware of the danger under the anonymity of darkness….. of women.
Three years later, arriving in London during lockdown, I woke to the ominous headlines that a young woman was missing. Sarah Everhard had not been seen or heard from, since leaving her friend’s house in South London at 9pm to walk home, on March 3rd,. I felt a ripple of fear – a cultural deja vu.
The following Saturday, from the confines of my quarantine, with a mix of raw emotions, I watched online as thousands of women gathered in Clapham Common. It was a vigil for Sarah. A police officer was charged with her murder. The sheer optics of such an archetypal ‘protector’ turned violent aggressor left London, and myself, reeling.
Barely ten days later, revelations of rampant sexual harassment in elite British high schools broke. Sara Soma, a young woman responding to intimations that her own experiences of sexual abuse at high school were not isolated, created a website, Everyones’s Invited. Within a week 11,000 posts from girls, as young as nine years old, laid bare an epidemic of sexual harassment, including rape, amongst students in British high schools. The government quickly responded with promises of a review. Apologies flowed from school officials. But the reality of the scale of everyday sexism, humiliation, and violence towards girls and women, was yet again confirmed.
In 2012, journalist and activist Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project, a forum hosting hundreds of thousands of such posts by women. Like the #MeToo movement, it provided human voices and faces, to the emotionally numbing statistics of sexual violence that continues to disfigure our societies. Over the last decade, grim landmarks remain etched in my own and thousands of women’s memories.
In late 2020, Promising Young Woman, a dark satire described as “rape revenge”, was released in the States. This has made its way to Britain. Peter Bradshaw (Guardian film critic) describes it as a “cathartic expression of post #MeToo rage towards a problem that never goes away”. The title provocatively plays on sympathetic sentiments extended to ‘promising young men’, whose bright futures are ‘threatened’ by guilty convictions for acts of sexual violence. Bradshaw also flags the film as a “trigger” for #NotAllMen indignation. Promising Young Woman, although graphically making a point, does not reveal a way forward.
Most progressives agree we need a radically new paradigm; one that goes beyond Western Cartesian dualism with its dominant-subordinate power structures, zero-sum frameworks, and its calculative, mechanistic worldview. There’s a growing phalanx of systems thinkers, cultural imaginaries, and sustainable economists, who recognise the interdependence of human beings within ecosystems, the need for empathy and respect, plural versus binary viewpoints, and the dangers of our existential vacuity. In other words, there is more and more exploration of a worldview that empathetically embraces the entangled complexity of life and seeks wisdom from its depths.
Within this intrinsically optimistic paradigm, gender is not seen as a primary issue. It’s considered by many to be obsolete, or worse – a lingering divisive binary. Viewed as irrelevant by both those who identify themselves as gender transcended/fluid, and those who consider the struggle for gender equality to be well over. Many millennials, whose subjective experience is one of gender neutrality, understandably have no interest in perpetuating the grievances of their mothers’/grandmothers’ 70’s feminism. The problem is that these partially true views tend to converge, resulting in the elephant in the room never being fully confronted. One only has to look at the statistics on global male violence to see how misconceived the notion that gender is irrelevant, actually is.
There is a contradiction at play here. It’s generally accepted that the instrumental worldview underlying our consumerism is not only destroying our ecosystems and biosphere, but is also dehumanising our societies. Sexual relations have metamorphized into primal transactional arrangements, stripped of affection and intimacy. In both the UK and USA ‘laddism’ has reached new depths. Toxic masculinity is not a feminista myth. In case one missed it, so-called locker room banter has devolved not just into the puerile practice of sexting sexual organs (flying penises) to young women, or posting humiliating images on social media, but an escalation in demeaning acts cheered on by male audiences. Instances of deliberate intoxication and sexual abuse of semi-conscious young women have risen.
I checked some of these stories with my niece and a few of her friends….they nodded “Yup….it’s not uncommon”. Rather than the gender gap dissolving, it appears to be exacerbating along expanding frontiers of gender violence. The scale of vitriolic trolling incubated on sites like C4chan and Reddit, the emergence of self-identified Incels (involuntary celibates), testify to dark spaces for dark thoughts and festering privations on the internet. Whatever conversations are occurring in the corridors of power, have resulted in negligible action. Women endure graphic (and terrifying) rape and death threats as par for the course of public life. This is not an indictment of all men; but there is a problem of the silent majority.
Strangely, (male) progressive thinkers, cultural commentators (with the exception of Grayson Perry and a few others), are noticeably silent about all this. Instead, we have #NotAllMen. There appears to be a conflation between the reality of male suffering and a denial of male violence, rather than an exploration of the links between the two. Warren Farrell and Jordan Petersen are articulate about the crisis of contemporary young men. Petersen accurately points to high rates of suicide and opioid addiction amongst men as the result of an identity crisis, a lack of meaning and purpose. But in discussing male violence, especially with feminists, the conversation usually devolves into a race to the bottom, over which of the sexes is more victimised. Both sexes, including LGBTQi, suffer – a fact aggravated by multiple factors, including race. It’s also true that male identity is a huge issue. Roles that traditionally provided self-esteem and an identity for men – warrior/protector, provider, and leader – are today shared by women. Many men feel usurped, disrespected, shamed, and experience existential confusion as a result. Release is sought through primal outbursts of rage, and violent acts of domination.
Existentially adrift, with an absence of new models of what it means to be a man, young males can easily turn to regressive camaraderie, infused with varying degrees of misogyny. Droves of adolescents and boys, some as young as eight years old, get their ‘education’ on sexuality from easily accessible porn sites; a death blow to innocence and intimacy. To miss the connection between a cocktail of social alienation, diminishing empathy, the trend for transactional sexual relationships, widespread pornography, and the scale of violence against women, is hard to fathom.
Seeking answers, I recently watched a conversation on Stoa, a platform that prides itself on cutting edge thinking, the title was Being a Man. Not a word was said in the first thirty minutes about the issue of male violence. Instead, there was more concern expressed about the “totalitarianism” of “the feminine”. And on the subject of men needing to express themselves, there was a range of views from a tale of bad boy antics in Sweden, to the injunction that men say ‘No’ to women, in order to gain their respect (a page out of David Deida’s philosophy). There were some truths in the conversation, but the elephant in the room was clearly missing.
In this depressing environment, I caught a clip from a BBC interview with Chris Hemmings, posted on his twitter feed. “It’s not up to women at this point” Hemmings was saying. “It’s up to us men”. I sat bolt upright and replayed the clip several times. Here was a fresh voice, a man calling for men to recognize the issue. He demanded that the BBC change the moniker at the bottom of the screen from “Women’s Concerns About Safety “ to “Male Violence Against Women”. The BBC complied at the time, but later insisted the video be deleted from YouTube. Hemmings’ context is not one of demonising men, but of changing the perception and discourse on rape and violence from being a “woman’s issue”, to being one that men also take responsibility for, at all levels of society. He spoke with raw honesty about his own past behaviour and awakening to this. He sees complicity in the silence on the subject of male violence, as core to its continuance.
How deep this code of silence runs, was demonstrated by the furious backlash to a Gillette ad in 2019, showing men calling out toxic masculinity in a brotherly fashion, with a tag line, “The best men can be”. Accusations of virtue signalling, emasculation, and inauthentic marketing, erupted amongst conservative and progressive men alike. The ad’s message clearly touched a raw nerve in the male psyche. But why? Did it transgress some deep fraternal code? an embedded sense of entitlement? Or, in demonstrating how “character can step up to change conditions”, as Bernice King (MLK’s daughter) observed, did it disrupt a primal assumption of ‘normalcy’ – thus violating the status quo of power?
Modernity, unmoored from a deeper moral ontology, has exacerbated this situation. Yet the roots of male dominance extend way back into our collective past. This is a complex issue. It’s not a question of vilifying men, but about ending a millennia-old cultural norm, rooted in mores where women were regarded as property, the booty of war; and rape was woven into the tapestry of history and literature – a recurrent theme in Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses, written in 8th century AD.
The environment of 21st century culture, despite human and women’s rights, invites darker impulses to the surface, whilst withering those of empathy and love. Extreme, or reductionist, positions of liberal feminism have also contributed to this. Postmodern cynicism stacks the odds against young people developing the capacity to establish and navigate human relationships, with the aid of the best of our humanity. Hyper-individuality in a competitive environment expunges empathy. At the same time, the tyranny exerted by tribal peer groups results, ironically, in crushing conformity. All of this is amplified under the harsh spotlight of social media, which those for whom this is ‘home’, is relentless. Teenage suicide is at a tragic all-time high in the West, with that of girls doubling since 2007.
The heaving, jostling, memetic cross-currents of contemporary Western culture, underscored by the commodification of every aspect of our humanity, is ushering in a fragility not only to our humanity, but also to our sense of existential identity. The suffering is universal. Modern life affects everyone. But it is against this background that the pervasive, yet specific problem of male violence against women, fails to get consistent attention. Similar to systemic racism, systemic sexism and the violence it begets, fades into invisibility. Both are too terrible and too ‘normal’ to attract significant attention for the depth of cultural introspection, and appropriate action, that’s needed.
How are we to approach this? Women’s role and identity is expanding, but there is a gaping void in terms of a new male culture. Instead, we have a crisis of existential impoverishment and immaturity, where power and self-esteem are too often sought in the momentary ‘high’ of violent acts. What it means to be male in the 21st century, is yet be explored and redefined in depth. Similarly, what it means for relationships between genders to thrive as real partnerships, is yet to be defined. So much of what we see as calamitous in the world today, can be traced to the entangled roots of a global malaise of dominance, and the spectrum of violence this produces. Women do not have the luxury to deny or of ignore this. The reality is, neither do men.