Let me begin by making a disclaimer for those of you I’d most like to read this: I and many other women don’t think that all men are inherently abusive or dangerous. Plenty of men aren’t trash.
There are plenty of men around who don’t make me feel threatened; men who support, respect and protect me on a variety of levels. Not every man has violated us individually; for most of us, there are plenty of men we trust.
I know exactly what you mean by “not all men” — because on a rudimentary level, I agree with you.
And yet, when women talk about the experience of feeling unsafe, it has become a cliché for men to frantically blow the trusty dog-whistle of “not all men” in response. Heck, women do it too. “Not all men are rapists,” you may feel tempted to say. Well, of course not. But there are many reasons “not all men” misses the point. When the discussion shifts from the siege under which women are to the protection of men’s images and feelings, the real and potentially fatal problems women are so familiar with are undermined and trivialised.
I understand that, as a man, your initial response to women talking about misogyny, rape culture and sexual violence is to yelp like something wet touched your face in the dark “Not all men! Not all men!” as a neon sign signalling that you are not an entitled, presumptive sack of shit who harms women. Stop doing that, it’s bullshit; interjecting yourself in this unhelpful way just confirms you are a member of the faecal family.
Acknowledging the implications of Men Are Trash would mean men would have to admit that they are the kinds of people who ignore, participate and benefit from the subjugation of women and do nothing to eradicate the oppression of fellow human beings, simply because they are women. For many men who view themselves as “good”, this poses a threat to their idea of who they are.
It doesn’t matter if not all men are rapists or femicidal. The point is, those people do exist and we don’t know whether you’re one of them because there’s no way of telling. It’s not like there’s a global fuckery registry held by feminist covens that we share widely. Thus it follows reason and logic to worry about being victimised even though most people around us aren’t perpetrators. Telling women they shouldn’t be concerned or afraid because not all men are dangerous is irresponsible and callous.
When you use the phrase “not all men” — or invest in its mythology — you’re giving yourself a pass, leeway to continue performing socially acceptable toxic masculinity without consequence, whether or not that’s your intention.
The way men are socialised means even a “nice guy” has in him the capacity and potential for violence because he believes his behaviour is normal because of patriarchy. Physically assaulting women is not the only form violence can take. Words are just as important an insight into the probability of future physical violence.
Gendered insults like bitch, whore, straatmeid, cunt and s’febe are in our daily lexicon, contributing to the dehumanisation of women. For a man to be called a bitch is humiliating. Not because he exhibits behaviours associated with a bitch but because that man has stereotypically feminine attributes. Because men are the beneficiaries of sexism, they do not experience the often destructive and deadly consequences of insults. But for women those names are a dimly lit alleyway into others negotiating her humanity.
Those cutting words are a cataract that thickens with time; men fail to see women as people deserving of their compassion. For women to elicit compassion or protectiveness from men, women must be family members, friends, children or intimate partners. Essentially, the result of dehumanisation leads men to empathise with women if they represent some extension of men’s own personhood.
Ask any woman who she is thinking of as she gets dressed. It’s a man. It is likely more to repel male attention. Women constantly consider the reality of targeted harassment or rape. There is ample evidence of girls and women being sexually abused, not only by strangers but also by men they know, love and trust. For most men, understanding that anxiety is usually in relation to the possibility of incarceration, not daily life.
Men Are Trash is not an indictment of men but rather of patriarchy. The phrase “not all men” invalidates women’s lived experiences (that’s if they even come out of these interactions alive) and makes men feel less uncomfortable about their role in advancing and maintaining the dangers women face. Intellectualising or witnessing women’s pain without making any tangible effort to destroy the status quo is a waste of time. You know you have to protect us from yourselves because you are trash.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s social media editor