Note – I have been conflicted about how to present this article, which was originally written for an Italian audience and references a number of local events. At first I wanted to adapt its content for a global readership, but a number of people suggested to keep it as it was due to the international outrage about the peculiarly Italian brand of misogyny raised by Asia Argento’s case. In the end I just clarified the more obscure references for the benefit of foreign readers, but you may want to Google Translate the content of the few remaining Italian-language links to get a fuller understanding of the matter.
Wars are never fun. For anybody: not even for those who eventually somehow win them – never mind for those unlucky enough to end up stranded on the battlefield, between one army’s bullets and the other’s charges.
I have been feeling like that for a while now. Protected – barely – by an ever more fragile foxhole, itching to do something and yet certain that peeking my head out just a little would be enough to get mowed down. And the war goes on, growing fiercer every day. So there comes a time when you have to take courage, fly your foolishness flag and run for it. Today we are going to talk about weightier subjects than usual, like gender-based violence and the gender gap.
Unless you are an ascetic holing up in hermitage – in which case you are visiting the wrong website – you ought to have noticed how the long-simmering tensions about gender issues have lately exploded, finally gaining the spotlights and the front pages. The casus belli was, as it often happens, a somewhat minor event. On the 5th of October the New York Times published a report that, also thanks to the testimony of a few famous actresses, denounced decades of harassments and abuses perpetrated by movie producer Harvey Weinstein against countless women. The literal casting couch is an open secret in Hollywood since Charlie Chaplin’s times but this case immediately made a splash, getting Weinstein fired in a blink regardless of his coverup attempts. What made the difference was both the tenacious media coverage and the corroborations from a growing number of stars who, following the example, told how they had to endure similar behaviors.
The story would have stopped however at the gossip pages if the phenomenon hadn’t reached beyond the borders of Movieland, inspiring countless common women to speak up. Spurred by actress Alyssa Milano, in less than 24 hours over half a million of people declared online to have been harassed by using the #metoo hashtag. Equivalent initiatives followed suit all over the world, proving how widespread the issue is: the Italian tag, for example, is #quellavoltache, and at the time of writing it has been used over 23,000 times on Twitter alone. Whatever the nation, the numbers don’t stop growing.
Even disregarding all the undenounced cases it is clear the situation is horrible – especially since it only represents a small part of the discriminations and violences you are exposed to if you are born a female. I am currently working on a book about comprehensive education to sexuality (as opposed to basic sex ed), and the research forced me to consider the frankly scary life in store for the average Italian girl. Here is a preview of the pages where I collected the key facts:
Since just 15% of schools worldwide have a sexuality education curriculum, and practically no parent in Italy talks about sex and affectivity with their children in a realistic way, her sole information will come from pornography
The first explicit sexual message specifically directed to her will arrive at 12. With time she’ll grow to consider such a thing as normal, since in 7.1% of the cases this will evolve into proper stalking before her 17th birthday and will get worse still, as these persecutions hit no less than 16.1% of women
Her first complete intercourse will happen around age 15 with a three or four years older guy. Since they both won’t have received any realistic education about it, they will not really experience it as lovemaking but more as an athletic performance and “breaking limits”, just like in the porn videos they will be experts of by then
Her ignorance will cause her more problems than you can imagine. In fact, she will probably – in 56% of the cases, to be precise – have no clear idea of how her own genitals are like nor how they work, not even as an adult. This is but one reason why she’ll easily end up believing, like 6 of her fellow countrywomen in 10, that feeling pain during intercourse is normal
It is almost a certainty (91% of women) that nobody will care about giving her enough information on contraception. So there is no wonder if one of her sexual experiences in five will use no contraceptive. 85% of the times she won’t even use any protection from possible sexually transmitted diseases (Source: Eurisko)
Even in the best of scenarios, if she will eventually decide to have a child she’ll be in for one chance in five to undergo abuses even during delivery itself
Just being female will also expose her to the constant peril of suffering harassment or actual sexual violence. The probabilities are 6% before age 16, then they rise up to 27%. Throughout her life she’ll have a 21% probability to be forced to perform sex acts against her will, in 62.7% of the cases by the hand of her current or former partner, who will physically wound her 40% of the times
In the ill-fated case she fell among the above-listed percentages, unfortunately she will be so scared and discouraged that she will report the crime only 7% of the times, making it quite difficult to measure and fight the abuse
I could keep rattling off figures, but these already are enough to understand how such events cannot but scar her psyche, causing even serious damage to her self-esteem and to her perception of her own body and value as a person. Her sexual identity will be so traumatized that it will become a problem more than a pleasure for her, also exposing her to a dangerous affective vulnerability.
But there is more, because besides being tormented by personal issues, her life will suffer an ugly series of social dangers as well: sexism, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted diseases, affective discriminations and more. Again, the common root can be found in the collective lack of any education to sexuality, whose individual and social price is incalculable. I will only quote three more figures:
Being born a female gave her social disadvantages since her first day of school, where half the girls are bullied, on a weekly basis in 9.1% of the cases
On completing her studies, things will get worse. As a matter of fact, the average Italian woman will earn just 51% of what a similarly aged man does, and has merely 27% of his chances to reach a significantly powerful financial or political role. (Source: World Economic Forum)
The numerous references to sexuality you just read are a result of the type of the book I am writing, but the basic concept is that even in 2017 and in a First World country such as Italy, being female is a strong social handicap, simply because society itself describes womanhood as a mystery, and women as lesser people.
But let’s just forget about statistics and focus instead on that burning rage you felt reading them, without even having mentioned “femicide” nor other such major horrors. That exasperation is what got those hashtags soaring, and what fueled countless articles analyzing the phenomenon, denouncing it and calling for change. All of them, incidentally, written by women.
Yup. Because on the male side the most frequent media reactions can be summed up with «right, but now don’t go making a fuss about it»; «if things have always been like this, you’d better suck it up»; «sorry, but I have more important things to think about now» and the evergreen «come on, you know it is your fault after all». Of course there are many other men who expressed more enlightened (or at least not so stupid) thoughts… but for copious reasons mostly tied to the inner workings of the media machine they appear to be somewhat a minority. Such an irrelevant one, as a matter of fact, that they have long been the butt of an actual joke, in the form of the ‘not all men’ meme – meaning more or less ‘we don’t care if you are calling yourself out, because everyone else still has unacceptable behaviors anyway’.
This being the situation, it is understandable how we are witnessing a return of the radical feminism from half a century ago, which posited that the patriarchal bias in society can only be challenged through a conflict between the sexes. After all, if power is held by hypocritical pigs disinterested in a conversation that would undermine their privileges, how else can you convince them to forsake some of it to reach real gender equality? Thank goodness today’s tone is generally more civilized and rational than the one of the veterofeminists of my childhood, but in so many articles and online material it is hard not to notice a veiled call to arms.
In a sense, the opposite would be surprising. In the meantime, in addition to the “old” Gamergate controversy, harassment cases have popped up in the digital culture field and even during the European Parliament summits, proving the existence of a pervasive phenomenon infecting any and every sector and level. The more the denounces grow, the more belligerent the atmosphere gets. Even an impeccable newspaper like the Guardian published a “guide to treating women well” that barely restrains itself from sending its male readers to fuck off, while certain social networks milieus are following the usual ultra-populist script, and are wallowing in the wish for conflict they themselves are fostering. And here the trouble begins – especially for me.
See, I’d wish to have my say about all this, but in this cultural climate being born a healthy carrier of a dick automatically puts me on the wrong side for many ladies who are – rightly, I repeat – already on edge. My original sin has a name: mansplaining. This neologism refers to the condescending attitude of those men who insist on explaining the world to women who often know more than they do. With what courage can I then expect to be taken seriously on a matter like this?
Further complicating things is my being into BDSM so much that I even made it the foundation of my job. If, how it often happens, my interlocutor’s only understanding of it comes from Fifty Shades or worse, I would be branded as a “deviant and possibly violent swine”. Hardly the ideal position to start a balanced discussion from.
Am I too prejudiced? Possibly. It may be that the conversation about gender-based abuse isn’t really as toxic and searing as I perceive it; nothing excludes the aggressiveness of the female columnists to be just an exaggeration on my part; it is well possible that the biases I fear derive from projections totally unrelated with the actual open-mindedness of the women I’d like to engage. I honestly hope that. But such anxiety underscores a key aspect of my thesis.
What worries me, ladies, is for this unprecedented moment of denounce and focus on a very serious issue to go wasted, or that it even bites back the legitimate wish for a true gender equality. To screw it all up it would be sufficient to keep up the current escalation of tones and to yield to the temptation of reducing everything to a stupid ‘women vs. men’ fight. After all, nothing would be easier than oversimplifying – especially in these times when communication gets almost always demeaned to mere partisanism.
Trust the cold sweat of my Y chromosome… If this subject makes me feel defensive no matter the fact I teach equality every day and I have a crystal-clear conscience about these matters, there are lots of little guys out there looking at your hashtags like omens of a fast-approaching armageddon. And no, this is not a cool thing; it is not your rightful revenge, but merely a huge menace.
From their point of view, this visibility campaign growing day by day until it cannot be ignored anymore amounts to a very grave danger. Of losing privileges; of becoming unable to rule over half of the world population; of having to question whole founding principles of their identity and the relations with their fellows; of getting forced to change their language; of risking punishment for what they consider “normal” behaviors; of being imposed responsibilities they have always ignored… the list could get much longer, but I’m sure you caught my drift. Of course there is no secret Great Patriarchal Plot conspiracy (actually there is, but only among extremists like the Taliban and Catholic priests). There isn’t even a conscious intent of oppressing women, but just a goddamned fear of having to renounce supremacy and control in the relations between genders, which in these uncertain times were the one remaining area where they could feel at least a little safe. Most of them haven’t even rationalized what is happening, but out of instinct they are preparing to do what they do best: fight the enemy and vanquish it. All they need is an excuse like the “right” provocation.
The reason is clear. Except for some fringe Trumpists, who would ever dare to admit: «I want my women quiet, cooking and taking care of my children, or all dolled up to have fun with ‘em with no hassles whenever I wish»? On the other hand, if it were females themselves to declare war… well, defending oneself is legitimate, isn’t it?
And we all know too well what shape those defenses take. Only ignorants use violence. The rest confide in ridiculing the accusations, in victim blaming, in the institutional resistance to petitions, in teaching lies as if they were truth, in legalized abuse, in leveraging religion, in methodical objectification until it gets so interiorized as to create abominations like the mamme pancine phenomenon [note – a growing online group of young moms so self-centered on their childish and ignorant view of the world, of sex and of womanhood to put themselves and their children in actual danger]. All of these tools are firmly in the hands of the male faction, are more than enough to win a war and they can become a hundredfold more oppressing in the blink of an eye.
To avoid a conflict, however, isn’t the same as giving up the fight. It just means to bring the battle to more favorable terrain – maybe even looking better as you do that. Because, let me say that aloud, this story does have one deeply disheartening aspect.
The more the protest mounts, the more polarized it gets, the more the victims look like their tormentors. More specifically, what I see is that – with the exception of very few footnotes – the arguments are extremely self-referential: ‘women’s rights’, ‘respect for women’, ‘the dignity of women’ and so on. Which is all fine and dandy, no doubts about that – but leaves everyone else behind. Where have dignity and respect for all those other victimized categories we see on the news and around us every day?
I know that the intention is not to merely defend your own backyard ignoring minors, immigrants, minorities, transpersons, unemployed people [note – Italy and Greece are the only two EU countries without a guaranteed minimum income law] and so on. And yet, the louder you scream ‘women’, the clearer the rest of the world hears ‘only women’ and that patriarchy you want to erase places you in their crosshairs, ready to shoot. It’s a natural instinct: when you corner an animal, fear makes it hyper-aggressive and willing to take any and every opportunity to go back to safety.
Let me make a modest proposal, then. As hard as it is, please change the ultimate purpose of this struggle. Don’t call only for women’s rights, dignity and respect… but everyone’s. What’s so odd about it, after all?
Let’s make a practical example. Even the most conservative politician, the one capable of finding a thousand justifications for gender-based discriminations «because the relations between the sexes have always been like this» would have no possibility to turn down a request for strict laws against anyone’s harassment. He might deny women are harassed, but can you really picture him making a declaration against a law to protect men from sexual abuses? And there you go: once a universal norm is approved, the ones to benefit from it are those who most needed one in the beginning.
If you need proof, just think of the historical precedent of the infamous obligatory “undated resignations” which were used to unfairly lay off pregnant employees [note – new hires, especially if female, were routinely and unofficially forced to sign a generic resignation form that the employer could later date to fire them at any time without having to pay for compensation]. Decades of protests and proposals did nothing – until a law was suggested to regulate the resignation process of any employee preventing abuses of power thanks to a simple bureaucratic formality and finally removing the issue. Unfair, sure, but effective nonetheless.
If you want to change the narrative, you must be the first to have the presence of mind to step out of it. Not just by considering yourself as a part of “everyone” instead of one specific genetic category, but also in the form of your protest. Not «us against them» but «all together»; not through the frankly embarrassing language of hardcore activism (does anyone actually say LGBTQQIP2SAA?) but using simple words; not with impalpable likes on the social networks, but with lots of practical, methodical work on an institutional level. And, above all, not today.
Wait! Before getting indignant at my last sentence, let me clarify. I am not suggesting to postpone the revolution, but to make it well. Fact is, in the impetuosity of the moment, we are mistaking the symptom for the ailment: indeed, like I wrote in the initial excerpt, all the abuses, the harassments and the discriminations are not the problem itself, but the expression of a much larger basic dogma.
Sure, you could unleash a sex war. We saw how women would probably end up beaten and in an even worse situation than now, but with a flight of fancy we can just imagine the opposite and an enlightened gynarchy of perfect equality starting tomorrow. And yet it would only last a few years, because the lack of education and the founding conflict would remain, lurking and ready to poison the future generations. Or we can extirpate the problem by its roots and deal with it once and for all.
If repression takes you nowhere and, like they say, anything rushed just doesn’t last, I believe the sole truly effective solution to be education – we even have proof of this, since the current situation stems from a specific education, and a lousy one at that. The issues we see denounced in this period all derive from how, for centuries, the taboo about sexuality prevented any serious education not only about how the female body works – therefore making the woman an unknowable creature – but also about affectivity and gender relations. How can you expect an equal society if both males and females are exposed since their childhood to a rhetoric of prey and predator, of conquest and possession instead of a serene rapport between human beings?
The alternative is then to change the education: we cannot trust in the parents – the behaviour is already engrained in them and they will most likely teach it to their own children, perpetuating the problem – so we must make sure schools will teach our children that – like we were saying – every person has the same rights, no matter their sex, gender, color, ethnicity, ability and age. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp: it ain’t odd and it even is eminently Christian, so religious fundamentalists can sleep tight. Unsurprisingly, this also exactly is what it is supposed to happen by law throughout the European Union… if only we didn’t have to to the disingenuous scaremongering of those who get rich by waving the specter of a non-existent “gender menace”. [Note – The politics of some European Catholic countries, and Italy in particular, are heavily influenced by the Vatican. Specifically, in the late Nineties the Church construed an imaginary social threat in the form of the so-called ‘gender ideology’, which is supposed to be a master plan by the Left and the “gay lobby” to destroy the “natural order” and dissolve society itself by forcing gender equality ideas onto everyone. Kindergarten children in particular would allegedly be forced to perform ritual group masturbation while dressed as girls. Although idiotic and obviously untrue, such scary stories are repeated loud and often enough to create mass panic, influence elections and force governments to submit to the requests – often of a financial nature – by the saintly Church.]
There is, however, an unpleasant side to this: for this plan to work, long-term thinking is key. The first step needs to be making institutions act upon the EU directives and train the educators themselves; then we’ll have at least two generations of kids who will be taught equality, but will have to confront their families and a society still thinking in terms of “the weak sex”; then we’ll have to deal with the cultural legacy of the past and its inevitable restorers… and only then, eventually, we’ll be able to enjoy a nation and a world where everyone has the same rights and ‘#metoo’ will inspire the same horror today we feel for the slave trade, colonialism or the extermination camps.
It is an unfortunately long road, which at no point involves wars between different genders nor empty online petitions. Denounces and campaigns are the indispensable fuel to keep society alert and they must not stop, but the true work is merely beginning. It is heartbreaking, but I doubt we’ll be around to see its results. On the other hand, today we can choose what to do: abandoning ourselves to rage and to a pointless conflict, or recognizing the problem, rolling our sleeves up and – all together – starting to change the world for good. For ourselves, sure, but especially for those who will come after us.
So this is it. Now I’ll take a good, deep breath, click the ‘Publish’ button and I’ll be out of my trench, hoping to dodge the inevitable bombs of this senseless war. Should I fall, tell my women I truly loved them. All of them.