Zoe Strimpel:

The Sunday Telegraph - - Front page - Read more tele­graph.co.uk/ opin­ion Twit­ter @zstrimpel Zoe Strimpel

‘Nice men are sud­denly wor­ry­ing that they, too, are part of the prob­lem’

I’ve been feel­ing slightly nau­seous all week, in that way that anx­i­ety can make you feel, sort of ner­vously queasy, un­able to shake the sense that some­thing has gone very, very wrong in­deed and is nowhere near fin­ished spi­ralling. The rea­son is this. As tales of male sex­ual pre­da­tion are rained down on us ev­ery sin­gle day, at times by the hour, it’s started to feel as though history is play­ing some kind of weird and night­mar­ish trick. In­stead of mov­ing for­ward to­wards sex­ual har­mony and hap­pi­ness, we’ve re­gressed into a mire of spite and divi­sion that the pre-war gen­er­a­tion must be ob­serv­ing with ut­ter dis­be­lief.

The crown on weeks of de­press­ing, sim­plis­tic and vi­cious dis­cus­sions about male bes­tial urges and fe­male vic­tim­hood was surely the News­night de­bate on Wed­nes­day night. Dubbed “The Prob­lem With Men”, the seg­ment – un­be­liev­ably – fea­tured a video clip of an­i­mals in the wild be­fore the as­ser­tion by Evan Davis that “there is some­thing rather an­i­mal about men”.

How, how, how have we ar­rived at a place – on the cusp of 2018 – where men are be­ing char­ac­terised as an­i­mals, and on News­night no less? It was like the very worst of Vic­to­rian sex­ual mo­ral­ity – wives as asex­ual ser­vants to male de­sire – com­bined with the shod­di­est of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy. It was ap­palling.

Silly old me. I gen­uinely thought that, in the An­glo­sphere any­way, we’d got beyond the bit­ter­est phase of the sex war. In 1973, Bil­lie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played a ten­nis match known as “the bat­tle of the sexes”. For those who haven’t yet seen the film with Emma Stone, the match was a bril­liant refu­ta­tion of the wide­spread be­lief that no fe­male ath­lete could com­pete with a man, let alone beat him. This was it­self a reflection of a deep-rooted be­lief – en­dorsed through­out cul­ture, pol­i­tics and the law at the time – that women were ul­ti­mately pretty lit­tle do­mes­tic crea­tures who didn’t be­long at the ta­ble, or on the court, with the big boys. It wasn’t un­til 1974 that Amer­i­can women could even ap­ply for a credit card. Naively, I thought we’d moved on since then.

I thought the whole point about life in a mod­ern lib­eral democ­racy like Britain was that we’d shaken free of the old habits of see­ing oth­ers first and fore­most in terms of bi­o­log­i­cal cat­e­gories like sex, race, dis­abil­ity and so on. I thought we were meant to see oth­ers as in­di­vid­u­als, and be­lieved in the in­fi­nite va­ri­ety and com­plex­ity of per­son­al­ity, psy­chol­ogy and so­cial back­ground. And yet here we are any­way.

Are men more likely to sex­u­ally ha­rass or as­sault women and other men more than women? Yes. Does it then fol­low that men should all be seen as vary­ing de­grees of cul­prit on a spec­trum of bes­tial urges, and by im­pli­ca­tion, women as in­her­ent vic­tims? Of course not.

For a start, it’s just not true. Sex­ual as­sault should al­ways be taken very se­ri­ously, but “men” are not some an­i­mal­is­tic herd from the cave­men era. They, like women, are in­di­vid­u­als with the range of sen­si­bil­i­ties, ideas and choices that be­fit life in the 21st cen­tury. Many are just fine and dandy hu­man be­ings (who woo women in all sorts of per­fectly fine ways). Do I re­ally need to state that many of my favourite peo­ple in the world are men? Amid the dis­tor­tions of the mo­ment, it seems so.

Then there’s the is­sue of back­lash. With “men” as a sex de­monised and smoked out of their hid­ing places, I worry that it won’t be long un­til all the right­eous fury re­dounds on women. Very quickly the mood has turned ugly, with women be­ing re­viled as pa­thetic snitches, law­suits wait­ing to hap­pen, fun-killing blue­stock­ings and crim­i­nal teases. I can’t help think back to when fem­i­nism be­came fash­ion­able again, five or so years ago, and how it seemed to co­in­cide with a grow­ing “rape cul­ture” against women on univer­sity cam­puses, more grotesque pornog­ra­phy, and the gen­eral sense that men, hav­ing been un­fairly tar­geted, were “fight­ing” back in some way. It’ll be grim.

Mean­while, nice men, sud­denly wor­ry­ing that they too are part of the prob­lem, are get­ting in­creas­ingly con­fused. Are they too just beasts? This won’t end well ei­ther. I was sit­ting with friends at din­ner on Thurs­day night when one of them got a text from some­one she met eight years ago at a party. He be­gan apol­o­gis­ing pro­fusely for a set of jokes he re­mem­bered mak­ing, and which he now wor­ried were lewd, of­fen­sive and had pos­si­bly made her un­com­fort­able. She dimly re­mem­bered meet­ing him, but had no rec­ol­lec­tion of be­ing dis­turbed. Why should she? She’s a tough, am­bi­tious woman far more in­ter­ested in suc­ceed­ing at work than in sweating a lewd joke made nearly a decade ago.

I thought we were work­ing well to­wards a truce, but I was wrong: the bat­tle of the sexes is raging like never be­fore. Men are an­i­mals, women their prey. Con­fu­sion reigns, and back­lash awaits. And as hol­i­day sea­son ap­proaches, I can’t help but won­der, the way things are go­ing, if we’re go­ing to end up with sex-seg­re­gated Christ­mas par­ties. For the next ca­su­alty of the cur­rent cli­mate will, of course, be fun it­self.

Court­ing con­tro­versy: Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Bil­lie Jean King in Bat­tle of the Sexes

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