I went to college between 1989-1992, and I think it’s probably fair to say that the atmosphere, in relation to gender politics, was pretty heated.
I like to think of myself as fairly equal-minded in terms of sex and sexism; I believe women have every right to do and say whatever men do and say, and I’m happy to say as much. I even use the grammatically incorrect ‘they’ instead of the pronoun ‘he/she’ or ‘s/he’ for someone whose gender I’m not sure about – I know it’s not proper grammar, but if I get, say, a letter from someone called Chris, I’ll say ‘they wrote to me on Monday’ when referring to them. I think it’s slightly more elegant, even if it’s frowned upon (and I understand why, but I find any ‘option/other option’ phrases rather break the flow of a sentence, be it written or spoken. Or, perhaps, written/spoken?).
So, given all this, and the fact that, as a chap in his late teens who was keen to appear sensitive and thoughtful to young ladies of my acquaintance, it was amazing how… hmm, hold on a minute, I’d better just make one thing clear; the following is my experience only, and in no way do I see this as representative of all women at all times or anything like that. This is a recollection of stuff that happened to me, and how it coloured my reactions and responses in the years that followed. I’m not daft enough to think that what happened was like some kind of litmus test for women everywhere and all stages in time. As time goes on, it becomes all too clear to me how startlingly and fascinatingly different people can be, even those with similar backgrounds or influences.
Anyway, it was amazing to my late-teens self to spend time with female students and see how much of their conversation seemed to revolve around how fundamentally rubbish men are. There was a lot of shared-experience stuff about boyfriends who were only after one thing, or how they never called after sleeping with them, or even (and there was a mini-outbreak of this) how their fathers had run off with other women (used, oddly enough, as a justification for treating male students badly, because – and these are the exact words used – “they’re only going to grow up to run off from their wives anyway”).
When called upon to discuss what they looked for in a partner of the opposite sex, many of my male friends were able to provide a list of their preferences (even if much of the time it consisted of words beginning with ‘b’ – blonde, brunette, and references to more specific body parts), but most of my female friends, I noticed at the time, were more adept at articulating what they didn’t want – he wasn’t to be too fat, or too short, or too obsessed with work, or too into football, or whatever. A minor point, granted, but I think it may have been symptomatic of a more negative slant.
And particularly in the realms of academia, where there’s a lot of emphasis on the ability to formulate, synthesise and articulate theories on various subjects (including, of course, issues of sex and gender), some of my female peers read a lot of material at the time which probably served to make them think that yes, all wars were born of sublimated and frustrated sexual desires on the part of men, that eating disorders have their roots in male wishes for women to be as small as possible so as to appear less significant in intellectual terms, and that a consensual sexual experience which the woman finds unfulfilling is ultimately akin to rape. These are all theories I genuinely heard discussed, and whilst each of them may well contain a kernel of truth or insight, experience in the years since has led me to suspect that the theories, like most blanket statements, were probably a simplification, and that ‘one size’, as it were, did not fit all. At the risk of sounding like one of David Tennant’s more excitable moments as the Tenth Doctor, humanity is often more varied and interesting and surprising than we might well give the species credit for.
I often found myself listening to arguments being advanced which seemed a bit suspicious (particularly the claims that they personally had been oppressed by men all their lives; those who argued this most emphatically were, I later realised, often those whose college years were being funded by their parents, and often their father was the main breadwinner, which was, um, confusing to get my head round), and as a male, I was often made to feel somehow implicated in this, as if I was part of some kind of patriarchal elite whose sole agenda item was the subjugation of women, now and forever. Having been directly told more than once that my opinions on any gender-related subject were inherently questionable because of my sex, I rarely ventured to make any comments as I sat and my female peers talked, often late into the night; theories were exchanged and advanced and piled one upon another until they reached startling and dismaying proportions. The whole world, it seemed, was little more than a machine to rape and mutilate women and render them helplessly subhuman, merely because of the arrangement of their chromosomes. The accumulated theories cast a grim shadow, making the society we’d enter upon leaving college seem dark and daunting, and the shadow loomed large, too, over my relationships with women for a while after I left academia.
Sometimes, however, things were said in seriousness that might have been more plausible as some kind of ironic joke, and I did challenge the ideas put forward; I would say something, because I felt an affront to either reason or my sense of self. Or both. One of my proudest moments, I’m both pleased and ashamed to admit, came when, after an evening of half a dozen female students lamenting the shortcomings of their boyfriends (current, previous and potential) and then men in general, the following exchange took place:
Female student: I mean, the thing is, all men are bastards.
Me: Well, that may be true, but all women generalise.
Female student: What ? God, John, I can’t believe you’d say something so sexist.
As I said at the start of this long digressive ramble, the gender-political atmosphere was heated in the late 1980s, and rather clouded, and it was probably another decade before ‘irony’ would feature more heavily in our lives. But as I say, I’m appallingly proud of that line, and chances are I’ll use it again if another suitable opportunity presents itself.
Being someone who wanted (even then) to write for a living, it was also alarming to be told that ‘men can’t write women characters’. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now, and I never got a satisfactory answer to my reversal question: “Does that mean women can’t write male characters?” But it was a worrying notion – I could only legitimately attempt to write male characters? That seemed horribly limiting.
But upon leaving college, and entering what is commonly known as ‘the real world’, it became abundantly clear to me that the hothouse atmosphere of college was a mini-world with very different standards to that of many of the people I met subsequently; in much the same way that I read books or watched plays or films or TV shows in which there were credible female characters written by men, I found that women didn’t see all men as predators or oppressors, and indeed large numbers of the women I met laughed at a lot of the more outré theories about gender politics. To my relief as a heterosexual male, I realised that a lot of women actually like men, as friends or more, and that although they were often faintly disappointed or disapproving in relation to their experiences with men, they were laughingly tolerant of this more than anything else. Which came, frankly, as something of a relief.
And that’s generally been my experience post-college, thankfully – with the odd exception – and I’ve come across much more willingness to accept or acknowledge and even celebrate the differences between men and women, and despite what John Gray might have us believe, a recognition of the fact that men and women are both, in fact, from the same planet, and that it’s probably best if we all try to get along.
Which is why this article, in a magazine called ‘Intelligent Life’, unfortunately reminded me of this period of my life. Frankly, I shook my head slightly as I read it, and tried to imagine whether The Economist’s spin-off magazine would publish a similar article if its target were women. It seems unlikely… and in fact their follow-up article seems more of an attempt to mine the same seam than to seek some kind of balance.
Once, when the word ‘misogyny’ had been been thrown around a late-night college conversation with considerable abandon, I asked one of my female friends if there was an equivalent word for being anti-men (perhaps, though I couldn’t swear to it, because there was a niggling feeling in my mind that much of what I was hearing amounted to a verbalised hatred of males). I wasn’t trying to be clever, or sarcastic, I genuinely wondered if there was such a word. “No,” she said. But there is – the word I was seeking exists, and it is ‘misandry’.
And just like misogyny, it is a bad thing.