Clementine Ford: "I'm sick and tired of women being held responsible for the actions men choose to take." Photo: Clementine Ford
All op-ed writers are subjected to various forms of abuse and pushback, but there's a special kind of harassment levelled at women. Because I write unapologetically about feminist issues, I seem to attract a particular kind of vitriol. I'm frequently accused of being bitter, twisted, damaged, angry, mentally deranged and hysterical. I've been told the only reason I'm so angry about rape is because I'm too ugly for it to ever happen to me. My relationship with my father is often called into question, because of course gender equality could only be important to a woman if she had a shitty dad (ironic really, considering the fact the men's rights activists who throw this one around also think criticism of fathers is a feminist conspiracy).
It's all par for the course really, but the one that confuses me the most is the one where I'm called an attention-seeker. The idea that someone would sit at home manufacturing outrage in order to gain attention is nothing short of silly. So too is the idea that someone professionally employed to share polemical views would be disinterested in whether or not anyone read them. We're writers! Of course we want people to read our work!
When this playground-level taunt was thrown at me again earlier this week, I took to Twitter to ask if this was something all writers dealt with or if it was just particular to women. Predictably, the men of my acquaintance revealed that they had little experience with it. It was generally agreed (at least in my circle) that it was a gendered insult, and one that women were once again expected to just put up with.
It was a revealing conversation, and it gave me the idea to pose other questions. Under the hashtag #QuestionsForMen, I began to ask questions relating to what I assumed were sexist double standards. Some were intended as genuine enquiries while others were designed to highlight what I knew to be hypocritical approaches to gendered behaviour. In some cases, I wanted to know if men felt subjected to the same physical and emotional social standards inflicted on women. In others, I wanted to highlight the ways patriarchy affects the men both privileged and disenfranchised by its strict codes.
The questions ranged from the deeply serious ("Do you feel scared if a woman is following you at night, and then do you feel silly for feeling that way?") to the casually sarcastic ("Have you ever read a thinkpiece by a respected female writer explaining how and why men aren't funny?") to the revealing ("Do you feel like you're supposed to express a desire for casual sex over intimacy?") As the men in my timeline began to seriously engage with the experiment, women around me started furiously tweeting their own questions.
Within a few hours, hundreds and hundreds of tweets had been sent out as #QuestionsForMen. Women (some of whom later told me had never publicly spoken about feminism before for fear of the backlash) eagerly leapt on the opportunity to outline their frustrations and anger over sexist double standards. Discussions were prompted over sexual violence, workplace inequality, economic disadvantage and even domestic expectations. Even better was the fact that men seemed to be engaging and listening. In their answers, they expressed their own frustrations about patriarchal conditioning and what can sometimes seem like a toxic trap of masculinity.
Sure, it didn't take long for the trolls and MRA derailers turned up. Whenever women gather to talk publicly about anything remotely related to their experience of the world, these pudding brains send out a bat signal so they can pop up and loudly declare, "I *think* you'll find it's about ethics in gaming journalism". But this time, women AND men were either shouting them down or just ignoring them altogether. As someone who's had to develop a pretty thick skin and fearless approach to abusive trolls who hide behind the cloak of anonymity, it was excellent to see more and more women speaking up for themselves and standing by their own truths.
One of the biggest tools wielded against women's empowerment has been the pernicious use of gaslighting. For generations, we've been told that we're imagining our own oppression. That we're overreacting or lying or seeing things that just aren't there. The result has been that women have been hesitant to speak about the reality of our own lives, because we've been trained to question whether or not our perception of it is even real.
But this is one of the enormous strengths of social media. A hashtag alone might not have the power to change the world. But it does have the power to start a conversation. And the instantaneous reach of Twitter has made it possible for women to have these conversations in ways that can no longer be discounted or silenced. That's power. I speak and write publicly and unapologetically about feminism not to necessarily change men's minds (although that's an added bonus) but to reassure women that they're not alone - that their thoughts and feelings about the world that they live in are real, and that there are others out there who can also see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. I want women to know that when they speak these truths, other women will stand side by side with them to help brace them against the backlash. Gender equality is possible, but we have to fight for it and we have to fight for it together.
So this is one of my last #QuestionsForMen. Which side are you going to be on?