The battle that men who aren't sexist must fight

The abuse Louise Mensch has been subjected to provides an insight into attitudes that are rampant

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Backbench Tory MP Louise Mensch is a craven apologist for Rupert Murdoch, and deserves to be exposed as such. This does not distinguish her from the Tory leadership, except that she is more honest about it and has less power to act on her sycophancy.

But following the culture, media and sport select committee's conclusion that Murdoch was not "a fit and proper" person to run a major international company, it was Mensch who rode to the much-maligned mogul's defence on Newsnight.

The backlash took the form of a torrent of violently sexist tweets. She was a "whore", a "cold faced cold hearted bitch", and far worse. "Louise Mensch... You would wouldn't you?" tweeted Northern Irish "comedian" Martin Mor. "Given half a chance you'd strangle her!" Vice magazine proceeded to ask Occupy protesters if they'd have sex with her: just for the "lulz", as the kids say. No male cheerleader for the Murdochs – there are many – is subject to these chilling attacks.

No stranger

I'm no stranger to Twitter abuse, though generally my critics are wound up by what they regard as my excessively youthful appearance. "Does your mum know you're up this late?" and "Shouldn't you be doing your paper-round?" are irritating largely because the Tweeter (who invariably hides behind a picture of some cartoon character and a profile ranting about the BBC and "lefties") thinks they're the first person to crack the "joke", and they're never very witty about it. It is nothing compared with the poisonous misogynist vitriol that women in politics and journalism – such as my colleague Laurie Penny – receive.

Twitter is an interesting insight into attitudes that are rampant in society, because it allows people to easily project venom that most would never dream of screeching at a passerby in the street. And it provides alarming evidence that sexism – of varying intensities – remains widespread among men. Whether they purport to be on the left or the right, there are all too many men who simply cannot bear to be lectured by a woman they passionately disagree with. "Who does this bitch think she is?" sums up their attitude; and if Twitter is anything to go by, what they say can be a lot more explicit than that.

It is time for more men to speak out about the continuing scourge of sexism. That does not mean – ironically – muscling in on the feminist movement. "Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement" was a headline a few years ago in satirical newspaper The Onion, summing up this potential absurdity. The emancipation of women is down to women themselves. But men need to be far more vocal allies of a feminist movement that has a long way to go.

Given thousands of years of gender oppression that has to be overcome, women's struggle for equality has made stunning advances in the past century: in the home, the family, the workplace, the political sphere, and the world of culture. But there is no basis for complacency. Women are, on average, paid 17 per cent less than men; only one in five MPs is a woman, fewer than in those well-known citadels of feminism Pakistan and Sudan; and at least one in four women faces domestic violence in her lifetime.

Cuts to public sector jobs, benefits and services are disproportionately hammering women. Of course, the experience of a privileged, powerful woman like Louise Mensch is very different from that of a part-time checkout worker being paid £6.12 in a Newcastle supermarket. But sexist abuse is a symptom, or a warning sign, of a society in which women overall are still not equal.

It matters for men, too. What it means to be a man has changed dramatically over the ages: what it meant in, say, the Middle Ages was quite different from the 19th century. And it has been transformed over the past few decades by the women's movement and, to a lesser degree, the gay rights movement.

Oppression

These struggles have challenged an aggressive form of masculinity that defines itself against stereotypical female traits, like being emotional, or weak, or sensitive. It oppresses not just women, but "lesser" men who fail to meet such expectations: "You big woman" or "Stop being gay" are cusses aiming to suppress those deemed to be deviating from the "manly" norm.

Men still struggle to talk about their feelings (with often devastating mental consequences); numerous studies have found they are more likely to interrupt women than interrupt other men; recent research by the IPPR think-tank found that eight in 10 married women do more housework than their husbands; and some men are clearly sitting in their Y-fronts while they spew misogynistic venom over Louise Mensch's Twitter feed.

But the old boorish, domineering man is in retreat: straight men are more likely to have friends who are women or gay; the number of "househusbands" has tripled in the past 15 years; and the male "grooming" industry booms as men tend to their appearance in a manner once seen as "womanly".

We'll know when we've overcome sexism when Louise Mensch is assailed for being a right-wing apologist of dubious corporate power, rather than verbally assaulted for being a woman. In the meantime, men must not remain silent while women continue to face sexist persecution. And overcoming the oppression of women will have profound consequences for humanity as a whole.

There is no finer way of putting it than how US feminist anthropologist Margaret Mead did, many decades ago: "Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man."

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