Mansplaining, Derailing and #NotAllMen

TW: discussion of rape, rape culture, victim blaming, domestic abuse

In my bid to get away from revision by engaging in kind-of-revision-but-not-as-useful-as-real-revision, I spent a good hour today looking through my old A-level notes. There was a point to this exercise: my A-level politics course covered various strands of feminism in relative depth, and I wanted a quick overview for my gender exam in a fortnight. While looking through my old notes, I found a power point presentation, entitled “The Patriarchy in Modern Britain.” Intrigued, I opened it up and flicked through the slides. It contained many of the depressing statistics that are burned into my brain for my upcoming exam: the fact that there are currently only around 18 female world leaders, the fact that 70% of the people living in poverty globally are women, the number of female MPs (which has risen by 7 percentage points since I wrote the presentation in 2012-3, so that’s something.)

In amongst the presentation, I found this slide (notice the middle bullet point):

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Now, perhaps the word “acceptable” in the middle bullet point was the wrong word to use. I meant to illustrate the idea that we accept rape as a fact of life in contemporary culture: we characterise rape are “just something that happens”, an act committed by monsters which women need to protect themselves from by “dressing appropriately”, not drinking too much and not walking home alone at night. I remember the class discussion after that presentation: every male person in the room was fixated on my use of the word “acceptable.” No one wanted to discuss the far more important issues of low conviction rates for rape, or the still high levels of domestic violence in the UK. Instead, the entire conversation became about one – perhaps slightly misplaced – word.

As I have grown older and become bolder in my feminism, this is something that happens over and over again. Men, taking offence at feminist statements. Men, changing the conversation to suit their own agenda. In this blog post, I would like to go through several of the ways in which men do this, and explain why it really needs to stop.

Firstly, the above example, which is an example of derailing. Derailing is when a feminist (or a member of a marginalised group) tries to begin a discussion about a topic, and someone else (usually a man, but not always) changes the focus of the conversation for their own ends. In the case above, a serious point about rape was derailed by the boys in the room to become a conversation about my use of terminology. It is perhaps most obvious when men’s rights activists attempt to challenge conversations about women’s inequality with how men are disadvantaged in contemporary culture. This is not to deny that men suffer from the effects of patriarchy: they do, and this is something that feminism seeks to address. However, derailers are only ever interested in talking about men’s rights when the conversation is on women’s equality. It is a tactic to distract attention from feminist issues, and turn them instead to what the derailer feels more comfortable discussing.

Secondly, many men engage in mansplaining. Mansplaining is when a man attempts – often in an incredibly patronising way – to explain to a woman something that she already knows, or does not need explaining. It is rife in feminist spaces online, which often include multiple men telling us what we “really mean to say” or why our opinions are, in fact, wrong. Although I did not have the language at the time, the incident in my A-level class was also an instance of mansplaining. The boys in the class felt that the word “acceptable” was the wrong one and, with little interest as to why I had used it, proceeded to spend the rest of the discussion laying out exactly why I was wrong. One of my favourite instances of mansplaining happened around a month ago. I was having lunch with my dad, and conversation turned – as it often does between us – to politics. My dad and I differ hugely on politics, and our debates are usually heated and frustrating on both sides. The abridged version of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m just saying dad, it’s harder to make your voice heard as a woman. Not only are men’s views and opinions prioritised in our society, but women are often talked over and have their opinions dismiss-“

Dad, interrupting: “Now, don’t be ridiculous. No one talks over women or ignores their opinions.”

Me, eyebrows raised: “… you do see what you did there?”

Dad: “…”

Me: “…”

Dad: “I will concede that you have a point.”

And finally, the idea of #NotAllMen. Again, this was utilised in the classroom: how could rape be acceptable when all of the boys in that room were so adamant that it was an abhorrent crime? They would never dream of raping someone, so why was it their problem? This, of course, totally misses the point. No one is saying that every man is a rapist: but part of the fear of being a woman is that any man could be. We have a perception in our culture that rape is something that happens in the dark, by a stranger – a random act of violence. It is not. Most rapes are committed by someone that the victim personally knows, and most are committed within the home. Rape is a systemic phenomenon; one that finds a breeding ground in a culture that objectifies and degrades women.

#NotAllMen are rapists: but that is not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen are potentially at threat because of rape culture. Focusing on men once again takes the attention away from women and women’s problems.

Perhaps you are a man reading this, and you feel defensive. Don’t: none of this is an attack on you. It is instead a plea to recognise your own privilege. You, as a man, are more respected and listened to than we are. You are more likely to have your opinions taken seriously, and you are more likely to be a position of power to have that opinion heard. Next time a woman tries to tell you about her experiences of sexism, listen to her. The same goes for other marginalised groups: if a person of colour is telling you, as a white person, about racism, don’t try and talk over them. Recognise that they are not attacking you personally, but expressing their frustration at the systematic inequality in our society. Who knows? You might even learn something.