Is misogyny a form of extremism? Whenever I see declarations on the need to tackle “all forms of extremism”, I can’t help wanting to insist that we add hatred of women to that list.
After all, it is a political matter. Misogyny kills. The othering of women cannot and must not be separated from the violence that is done to them.
Last Saturday the body of 18-year-old Ellen Higginbottom was discovered in Orrell Water Park. Two men have since been arrested on suspicion of her murder and Greater Manchester police are said not to be ruling out “a sexual motive”. Misogyny, on the other hand, has not been mentioned as a motive at all.
That men could hate a woman enough to kill her for the sake of sexual arousal is apparently so mundane as to be considered unworthy of note. Had Ellen Higginbottom been standing in a crowd when a religious fanatic or far-right terrorist drove into it, the political context of her death might have been granted some degree of analysis. Instead we’re presented with the same old reasons as to why men kill women: sexual desire, jealousy, some abstract, decontextualised “loss of control”.
No politician is asking what might have incited Higginbottom’s killers to target her, just as no politician is demanding an inquiry into how British men have become so radicalised that they are slaughtering their female partners at a rate of two per week. There might be an acceptance both that misogyny exists and that male violence is a problem, but there’s a profound reluctance to join the dots between the two. The culture that nurtures a man’s desire to hurt women remains in many ways beyond critique.
Of course, the difficulty of defining misogyny as extremism is that it isn’t a minority position. It’s not that certain disturbed individuals take the way in which different cultures view women and distort it, turning something benign into something harmful. The harm is already integral to the way in which gender functions.
It’s easy to depict the average misogynist as the stereotypical lone wolf on the margins of society. The truth is, he’s fully integrated into mainstream society, perhaps even occupying a position of privilege. A recent report released by UN Women and Promundo, a global organisation involving men and boys in gender equality advocacy, suggests the more educated men are, the more likely they are to feel entitled to harass women.
Misogyny isn’t extreme if by that we mean “exceptional” or “furthest from the centre”; on the contrary, using those criteria, the extremist viewpoint would have to be the feminist one. Like many self-described feminists, I waited decades to look at the work of writers such as Dworkin, de Beauvoir or Firestone on the basis that they were “the real extremists” (it probably doesn’t help that the “radical” in “radical feminism”, intended to mean feminism that takes into account the very roots of misogyny, has become unfairly associated with “radicalisation” as the adoption of an exclusive, narrow world-view).
If we take a step back, it should strike us as utterly shameful that the women who research, speak, write and organise in order to stop men harming women are considered, at best, a special interest group, at worse, an exclusionary cult, whereas the men who depict women as sexual objects, harass them in public, defend their “right” to pay to penetrate them and sit masturbating to images of women in pain are considered ordinary red-blooded males.
The reason we don’t notice this is that it’s become impossible to take a step back from misogyny. A fish doesn’t notice water, which is why consciousness raising has always been so important to the feminist movement. A common criticism from men’s rights activists is that “feminists see misogyny in everything”. Well, yes. There’s an obvious reason for that.
The enormity of the abuse suffered by women as a class renders it mundane. Nonetheless, if we are willing to examine the relationship between right-wing newspaper headlines and the choice of a man to drive a vehicle into a crowd of people, then we can also examine the link between everyday misogyny and the choice of a man to rape, torture and murder a woman. From the Sidebar of Shame to the average music video, we are surrounded by messages telling us women are not really human, but objects to be mocked, groped and penetrated. We’re supposed to think there is no real connection between pornography’s fetishisation of feminine submission and male violence against women and girls. We’re meant to believe that the drip-drip effect of dehumanisation produced by words and images only counts when dealing with groups which might include men.
I don’t believe this and nor should you. Women and girls deserve better. If we are committed to tackling hatred in all its forms, it’s time we stopped granting a free pass to anything that promotes the idea that female people only exist in relation to what male people might want to do to them. It’s time we stopped treating the objectification of women – as opposed to that of any other group – as a trivial concern, if not as a form of entertainment. It’s time we stopped pretending that men don’t use fantasies of dominance to justify their real-life dominance over women.
If we could reach a time when male violence against women and girls were completely eradicated, that would be fantastic. For now let’s just aim for one in which men who dehumanise women may justifiably be considered the extreme and not the norm.
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