Yeah, but are they? (Photo: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)

June 17, 2021   6 mins

According to a recent training document produced for Oxfam, white women need to ask ourselves whether we’re causing harm by fighting sexual violence. Our whining, we’re told, “legitimises criminal punishment, harming black and other marginalised people”.

The progressive world has a long and ignoble history of downplaying sexual misconduct for the sake of “the cause”. One such incident nearly tore the Socialist Workers’ Party apart in 2013, long before #MeToo, when a senior party member was accused of rape.

The female accuser didn’t go to the police, because she believed that the party’s hostility to the thin blue line meant involving them would result in her expulsion from the party. Instead, the SWP handled the matter internally — and she was told the accused was suspended from the party and told him to read up on feminism.

A glance at the track record of prominent male feminists, though, suggests that this may not have helped. Being an outspoken male supporter of gender equality is no shield against accusations of improper behaviour.

Take, for example, former GQ political editor Rupert Myers, who berated men’s rights activists as “cave-dwelling idiots” for denying the existence of “rape culture”. Being a self-styled feminist was no defence against a social media mobbing, though. When allegations circulated online at the height of #MeToo about Myers’s sexual behaviour, prompting a Twitter pile-on, Myers ended up being fired by the magazine.

Nor is he the only one: other male feminist journalists who faced #MeToo allegations included Sam Kriss and Vice’s Michael Hafford. Even the Ground Zero of #MeToo himself, Harvey Weinstein, complained in 2019 about how the accusations against him have “eviscerated” his pioneering work in gender equality.

This isn’t a purely #MeToo phenomenon either. During the GamerGate controversy of 2014, a number of male journalists spoke out in defence of women — more than 15 of whom have since been accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment and rape to consuming child pornography.

My aim here isn’t to re-litigate the rights and wrongs of every alleged misplaced hand, or ill-judged joke, so much as to wonder at this startling volume of “male feminists” at least alleged to be on the pervy side. Surely a commitment to feminism would have the opposite effect. Why, then, so many self-identified male feminists dogged by rumours of sexual misconduct?

Men’s rights activists might argue that in a climate where calls to “believe women” come thick and fast, even the most ambiguous situation can easily be weaponised to destroy a man’s career. Men accused of impropriety have claimed that the real motivation was politics — or simply a bad breakup.

To this the feminists might retort, following Mandy Rice-Davies, that they would say that, wouldn’t they. Everyone wants to believe the best about themselves, something that leads to what social psychology calls “moral licensing”. This concept argues that people justify ethically dodgy behaviour by referring to a past track record of virtue.

For example, one Stanford study showed that people who loudly proclaim anti-racist views are often, in practice, more racist than average. Are men who identify as feminist more prone to sexual misbehaviour because they imagine their political beliefs put them beyond reproach?

A radical feminist might reply, though, that imagining it’s merely self-deception is to misunderstand what feminism is. In this view, since patriarchy arranges men hierarchically over women, it’s impossible by definition for a male to be a feminist. Regardless of a man’s intentions, as long as patriarchy exists he’ll always be an oppressor; he will inevitably end up imposing his own patriarchal presumptions — and sometimes sexual attentions — when they’re not wanted.

But part of the difficulty is precisely in determining where sexual attentions might be wanted. There are, of course, clear-cut and inexcusable cases of rape and sexual assault. But some of the cases above provoked intense controversy precisely because the circumstances of the accusation were highly subject to (inevitably partisan) interpretation.

And one under-discussed fact that complicates these controversies is that women do not, under every single circumstance, categorically hate men being sexually forward. In ‘BDSM’ circles, for example, numerous studies have shown that women are significantly more likely than men to fantasise about being dominated.

And enjoying male assertiveness isn’t just a kink among the whips-and-chains brigade. One study showed that 93% of women prefer to be asked out, rather than asking. Once in a relationship, too, a lack of male sexual initiative often makes women unhappy. Clinical psychologist Marianne Brandon, for example, describes how frequently female patients express frustration with male sexual partners who have learned that “to show respect to their female partners” they must “avoid at all costs any behaviour in the bedroom that may be regarded as aggressive or dominant”. In other words, male sexual initiative is often quite popular with women.

But not always. The same action might come across as deliciously confident in one context, but repulsively creepy in another. And the sheer volume of #MeToo accusations suggests something has gone very wrong how men and women assess which is which.

The institutional takeaway from #MeToo seems to have been that the solution to such unhappy encounters is more feminism, more consent and more bureaucracy for punishing people who get the context wrong. But if in fact women quite like at least a measure of male sexual initiative, provided it’s in the right context, then we may need not less aggression but better guidelines on context.

And here we face the troubling possibility that all these handsy male feminists weren’t overly forward because they were doing liberal feminism wrong, but because they took its lessons too literally.

For core among these lessons is the idea that men and women are basically the same apart from our dangly bits. As the quintessential liberal pop-feminist (and UN feminist advocate) actress Emma Watson put it: feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” It is, Watson tells us, “about giving women choice […] It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality.”

And yet however loudly we bang the drum for equality, there remain some clear and well-documented differences between the sexes. Perhaps, as this UN Women training booklet does, this is a consequence of sexist male socialisation. But a simpler explanation is that humans are, while capable of rationality, also evolved animals — and that this translates to some normative differences in attitude and behaviour. For example, males commit 90% of all sexual assaults, and almost all violent crime.

Of course, suggesting male aggression (including sexual aggression) may have some basis in evolution isn’t to argue it’s always good. But it is to argue that education is unlikely to get rid of it entirely. And if this is true, the core reason there are so many male feminist sex pests may simply be because they’re male. No amount of feminist “education” will alter this basic fact — even if women wanted to, which (at least according to Dr Marianne Brandon) is by no means universally the case.

If anything, sending a lechy male feminist off to read liberal feminism, like the SWP did, may make matters worse — for doing so will entrench the belief that differences between the sexes are pure social constructs. And a man who’s signed up to this worldview has no reason to imagine his sexual desires differ in any way from those of a woman he finds attractive. We are, he might point out, totally over the sexist stereotypes of women as pure vestal virgins — aren’t we?

This belief that men and women are essentially the same leaves both sexes chronically at risk of misunderstanding human sexuality. A measure of male sexual aggression is neither entirely a social construct nor wholly curable via education. It has a biological substrate. And it’s not even undesirable to women, provided it’s in the right context. But managing it takes a measure of realism, compromise and — sometimes — a willingness to adopt social norms that treat the sexes differently.

This is anathema to the liberal feminist doctrine of sameness, a worldview so committed to ignoring any biological element to sex differences it’s bound to leave men ill-equipped to recognise and restrain their own sexual aggression. And on the other side, this doctrine of sameness leaves women shorn of social strategies for evading that aggression, leading to the (anecdotally common) phenomenon of women consenting to unwanted sex largely out of politeness. And it’s somewhere in this murky territory, I suspect, that many of the most controversial accusations of impropriety occur.

Then both sexes, wounded and perplexed as to what has gone wrong on the battlefield of intimacy, turn to supposedly neutral but in fact highly politicised procedures and pseudo-legal means of redress, in the hope that someone can adjudicate on who was right and who wrong. No one ever stops to wonder if part of the problem is that everyone is working off faulty assumptions.

What is to be done? At least if internet gossip is to be believed, teaching men to be feminists isn’t doing the trick. But contra received opinion, we may not help matters either by trying to demolish sexist stereotypes about male and female sexuality. Instead, if we’re to navigate our differences honestly in the interests of intimacy, we may need a feminist project to resurrect them.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.