I got into an argument online this week with an old friend of mine. He is an intelligent and thoughtful man who I considered to be a feminist ally. He mentioned that he had nearly lost some friends on Facebook after he commented that he felt that class or racial oppression was far worse than gender oppression. Steadying myself for a fight, I quickly responded by pointing out that 2 women a week are killed by their current or former partner which was surely a sign that gender oppression is very real and at times fatal. He questioned this and suggested that men were as likely to be victims of domestic violence as women, at which point I called “Bullshit”.
I am not proud of myself for resorting to swearing. I like to think that when I engage in arguments with people about feminism I do so respectfully and try to stick to the matter in hand rather than trading personal insults or telling them that they are talking bollocks (even when they are). But the guy in question is an old boyfriend of mine, a regular adversary in various political debates, and not believing that he had pulled that “What about da menz?” shit, I was quick to cut to the chase. To give him credit he remained calm and rational and asked me why I thought that, where I got the stats etc By this point I was pretty angry, surprised to find myself having this argument with this particular man, and wanting to avoid further conflict, I tried to exit the conversation and told him to go and have a look at the Women’s Aid web site. He then asserted that he was a “patriarchy sceptic” and my jaw dropped.
How could any half intelligent person living on the same planet as me be a “patriarchy sceptic”? The existence of patriarchy seems so obvious that I had forgotten that some people actually deny its existence. Men own and run the media, the film industry, the music industry, the military, the government, the financial sector, how could my friend deny this undeniable reality? I pointed out that men literally used to own their wives, they dominate in all areas of the public sphere and their privilege has historically been enshrined in law. Getting into my stride, I dusted off my feminist big guns, angrily insisted that although the statistics on DV released by the British Crime Survey suggest that there are a lot of male victims, they do not reflect the reality in that male violence towards women is more frequent, more severe and typically involves the exercise of power and control, and urged him to use his common sense by thinking about how many male victims of DV he actually knows – when he dropped another bombshell – he was regularly assaulted by a former girlfriend. Suddenly I didn’t feel like arguing any more.
Given the obvious awkwardness of the situation I spent some time capitulating and removing my big fat feminist foot from my even bigger mouth. We chatted a bit more, mostly involving me apologising and expressing concern for him and then parted our virtual ways. The exchange bothered me and I have been thinking about it ever since. Why was I so quick to jump on the defensive? What was it about the insistence that men are victims of DV too that had bothered me so much? I am a pacifist and against violence of all kinds, surely that means male victims too?
To give this some context, I have spent the last 10 years working with female drug users, many of whom have been the victims of some nasty intimate terrorism. I’ve known several women who have been held prisoner in their own home and forcibly injected with drugs, another who was sent out on the streets to sex work by her abusive partner and have lost count of the number of women I’ve supported who have been at risk of losing their children due to having a violent partner. I am a trustee of a local refuge and a survivor of male violence myself – this stuff is important to me on a personal, professional and political level and my friend’s comments cut to my very core, he couldn’t have been more successful in pushing my big red flashing buttons. I have spent so long insisting that domestic violence is gendered violence, that it is reinforced and supported by patriarchy and insisting that we name the problem as male violence, that it has become a well rehearsed argument that I can pull out without even thinking.
I didn’t think about the fact that my friend could have been a victim of domestic violence, and for this I am sorry. I laughed when he suggested that it was as bad for men as it is for women and told him that the murder rates were indicative of how much worse it is for women. After he told me about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his ex, I spent a bit of time Googling and realised that sometimes women do kill their male partners, sometimes they do exert power and control in a relationship and sometimes they hit first. I still think that domestic violence is overwhelmingly a problem of male violence but it has been a useful reminder that sometimes I can be a bit quick to jump up on to my feminist high horse. We spent the week exchanging emails where he continued to try and challenge some more of my feminist beliefs, culminating in him sending me a video from an MRA which I dutifully sat through (I think I felt guilty), while I formulated arguments and tried to justify my own position.
Eventually my heart went out of it and I realised we could go on arguing forever. I am well aware that my views are not in any sense “objective”. I see the world through a feminist lens and often see what I want to see. I don’t believe in an objective social reality that is “out there”, and don’t believe anyone is able to observe it neutrally even if it is. My feminist filter means that I see misogyny, sexism and the all pervasive power of patriarchy everywhere I go and at times I wish I could rip it off and spend my time looking at amusing videos of kittens on the internet or watching a film without realising that it fails the Bechdel Test. I suppose what I’m saying is that I recognise that my view of the world is no more “True” than my friend’s. It is my Truth however, and for now, I’m sticking with it.