I was a feminist in the early 1990s. We may not have had hashtags back then, but we still had our anger. I was 16 when, in 1991, marital rape was finally made illegal in England and Wales. Writing for The Spectator, the journalist Neil Lyndon described the change in law as a being motivated by a “terror of Eros”, condemning a feminist orthodoxy which “insists that male that male sexuality is actively antagonistic to women”. It’s strange to note how similar this language is to that which appears in many of today’s woman-led attacks on #metoo. The frankly idiotic suggestion that description is prescription – that women make themselves victims by naming their victimhood – has its roots in men’s rights activism, but has been repackaged as nuanced, rational feminism more times than I’d care to remember.
The most obvious example of this may be the 1993 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, written by the same Katie Roiphe now associated with the outing of the author of the Shitty Media Men list. The cooler-than-thou tone and lazy, half-baked arguments throughout this book could form a template for today’s attacks on #metoo. Responding to what she sees as the extremism of “rape-crisis feminists”, Roiphe goes all-out to present basic observations of social reality as examples of self-inflicted victimhood (“by viewing rape as encompassing more than the use or threat of physical violence to coerce someone into sex, rape-crisis feminists reinforce traditional views about the fragility of the female body and will”. Coercive control? Never heard of the thing!).
On one level, this is nothing more than high-level trolling. What are statements such as “rape is a natural trump card for feminism” and “regret can signify rape” supposed to do, other than cause offence? Yet at the same time, this type of trolling can slowly get under the skin. As Ariel Levy was to put it in Female Chauvinist Pigs, “Nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room anymore, the ghost of women past. It’s just not cool.” The association of women having sexual boundaries with women being weak and passive is false, but it becomes compelling if the message is repeated often enough.
#Metoo will help individual women and push our understanding of consent that little bit further along – and by way of a thank you, it will no doubt be remembered as a movement led by extremist, hysterical sexphobes. Such is the way of these things. We’ll talk about “that time when feminists took things too far” and we’ll blame this “taking things too far” for the fact that we’re still fighting the same old battles.
It’s happened before, it’s happening now and it will happen again. That it will keep on happening is proof of the intractability of patriarchy, but also of the fact that we never give up. There will always be backlash because there will always be feminism. In the future we won’t be saying #metoo – but I hope we will still be defending our bodies and boundaries.