Monday, 26 November 2012

Misogyny - a taboo word?

Misogyny is a word I have only relatively recently begun to use quite regularly. Before that I felt uncomfortable about it but without really understanding why. I have been prompted to try and articulate why by two recent incidents:
  1. A man online stating <read mansplaining> that rape wasn't always an act of misogyny and those that perpetrate it weren't always misogynists.
  2. While I was reading Lundy Bancroft's "Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men". As wonderful as the book is I think he has missed a trick when he states that most abusers are not misogynists.
"The notion that abusive men hate women was popularized by Susan Forward's book Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. Dr Forward's description of abusive men are the most accurate ones I have read, but she was mistaken on one point. Most abusers don't hate women. They often have close relationships with their mothers, or sisters, or female friends. A fair number are able to work successfully with a female boss and respect her authority, at least outwardly."
It seems that misogyny/misogynist conjures up images of a man who actively and demonstrably hates all women. After all not even a rapist can be classed as a misogynist, it seems. Dictionaries tend to define misogyny as "hatred of women" which is ambiguous and sounds almost pathological. For me, it is much subtler and more pervasive than this.

Take my first incident. This man (lets call him Bob) went on to say that not only was rape not always misogynistic but the fact that thousands of Russian soldiers raped thousands of German women at the end of the second World War proved it. They couldn't all be misogynists?

Why not? Why couldn't they all be misogynists?

Is it because they had wives and daughters and mothers that they loved? Yet there they were doing a heinous act to someone else's wife/daughter/mother.

Is it because there were so many of them? Surely not all those men could be misogynists? Because that would then open the door for all those men who really do like women but who find themselves "inexplicably" doing hateful acts towards them, suddenly being misogynists. How could that be true?

Is it because it was just a single isolated act? I think this is where both examples start to merge. A man who does one hateful act to one woman can't possibly be a misogynist. A man who treats one woman or only a few women badly can't possibly be a misogynist. Yet in the quote from Bancroft's book he actually gives a clue as to why that probably isn't true. A fair number are able to work successfully with a female boss and respect her authority, at least outwardly.

At least outwardly. So this suggests that beneath a polished surface is a bit of turmoil as to whether he respects his female boss. This is one of the keys. A misogynist has an underlying disrespect for women. He may treat his mother or sister well because they are on that pedestal of "acceptable" women. However the disrespect bubbling beneath the surface "allows" him to commit these seemingly one off acts or abuse only certain women. When Bancroft goes into more detail about abusers it is clear that a lot of them (if not all) have a previous history of abusive relationships; they talk about women in derogatory terms; they want to control their partners. Just because they may be nice/civil/outwardly respectful to some women in their life, does it mean they aren't a misogynist? There is still a pattern of disrespect and disrespect of women is a form of low level misogyny. It isn't the overt hatred that seems to be expected from a misogynist but it perpetuates the subjugation of women.

Bob may have had a point albeit he put it very ineptly in his eagerness to educate us (I am being more than a little generous there). What makes a seemingly ordinary man do such a terrible act as raping a woman? I think that this points to the other half of the definition of misogyny - the fact it is systemic i.e. society allows men to treat women badly and society sees women as less human than men. It gives them permission. This is how so many men abuse the women they are in relationships with. This is how so many soldiers raped so many women. Although the difference was that the soldiers were given explicit permission without repercussion rather than the implied permission abusers take. An important point to also note is that they were given permission to rape specifically because their victims were women. But to actually commit the act of rape they must have thought those women as lesser to themselves. That disrespect must have always been there. It was just brought to the surface.

In Bob's redefinition of rape as a non-misogynistic act he also failed to take into account of the victim's feelings and experience. I am pretty certain that the women being raped thought that the individual soldiers hated them. Coupled with the fact that there was no recourse over their violent acts would make the women feel it was misogynistic. They were raped because they were women. It has always been a special punishment for women. What is more misogynistic than that? How dare this arrogant and privileged man deny these women their experience? To a lesser extent Bancroft is doing the same. He admits society allows men to get away with abusing women yet he fails to make the leap to it being misogyny that allows that. And abusive men, by taking advantage of society become misogynists themselves.

However we are looking at an extreme and unusual act with the mass rape of German women. The average rape is common place and committed by men in pretty average circumstances. Are these men misogynists? Of course they are. The average rapist hasn't just raped one woman for a start. They are using a tool of subjugation against a woman for the purpose of power and control. These men really don't like women. It is quite simple, much more obvious than with an abuser. It is hate. It is misogyny. The clues will be there in their interactions with women.

Overall misogyny is a lot more passive than the traditional view would have you think. Disrespect, viewing women as less than men rather than out and out hatred is what drives it. Society also provides the vessel in which it grows and continues. Without that vessel it would just be individual men doing individual acts of violence and abuse to individual women.

I am not the only person who thinks that the popular definition of misogyny is too simplistic and the actual definition should be much wider than the hatred of all women all the time. Julia Gillard has prompted a rethink by the Macquarie Dictionary and other dictionaries. This is no bad thing. Misogyny is much more widespread than a lone nutcase on a vengeance trip against women. It is time that mainstream society caught up with that.

On a more positive note, not all men have this disrespect and bubbling hatred for women. I am absolutely certain that some of those soldiers refused to rape these women, for example. Just like men refuse to abuse their partners even though society will allow them to get away with it. And it is reversible. We have to believe that. Men are human. They have the capacity to love and admire and respect us too.