‘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