The Great Stink

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | February 2018 | 17 minutes (4270 words)

My heart goes out to men right now. Actually, my heart goes out to all sorts of unsavory places these days, no matter how much I warn it. My heart goes out to men most nights, wearing precarious outfits, no doubt getting exactly what it deserves. It brings back stories.

In the past weeks and months I’ve spent a lot of time sitting across tables from men who have been accused of sexual assault and rape — men who are angry, and afraid, and have no idea what to do now. Men for whom the fast-changing code of sexual and romantic conduct is not the most immediate problem: theirs is that they have been called out, condemned, and are wondering what the next months and years of their lives are going to look like. And in their bitterness I can hear a backlash coming down the tracks.

I have held the hands of living men as they cried about how their lives are now over. I have listened to men tell me, repeatedly, how they have felt suicidal. I have listened to them discuss methods of killing themselves. I have stayed up late to check that friends were still alive. And I’d do it again, and I’m not the only one — far from it. Everywhere I look, the work of helping heal the trauma of transition to a better and less brutal way of living and loving is being done by women, and it is exhausting work, and it is not being recognized. In fact, all I hear is endless accusations that we are being mean girls and going too far, that if we’re not careful we’ll push men over the edge, they’ll lash out, they’ll break down. Modern masculinity is apparently too fragile for this. I have no idea why more men aren’t offended by the assumption that they are too weak to cope with change, but I’m offended on their behalf. Don’t mention it, it’s my job.

Even though the issue on the table is the awful things that women and girls have had to put up with for unspoken generations, we still, somehow, seem to be more worried about men. Women know how to suffer, apparently, and men do not, so we should carry on being punished for the crimes others have committed against us. In almost every conversation I have had about this issue, with people of every gender, the topic has tilted slowly back towards how we’re going to help men, as opposed to how we might make all our communities kinder and better and less fucked up.

The problem is that men’s pain is, still, so visceral, so dominating, and women’s pain is so easy to dismiss. Men’s panic about being accused of violence has overwhelmed women’s actual experiences of violence in the public imagination.

Even though the issue on the table is the awful things that women and girls have had to put up with for unspoken generations, we still, somehow, seem to be more worried about men.

It is not anti-feminist to talk about men’s emotions as if they matter. What is anti-feminist is the demand that men’s feelings come first, to insist that men’s experiences are taken more seriously, to threaten women into placing men’s comfort ahead of their own safety. It’s not wrong to help men heal their hurts and grow and move on, but that healing and growth must not be prioritized over the safety and growth of a complete community. I do think “what about the men?!” is a politically relevant question in this case, because ultimately this is a protracted social negotiation, one in which men have always had more power.

From talk shows and op-eds to private message groups, women keep being asked, keep asking each other, when this is going to stop. Why can’t we be gentler, more reasonable, and — let’s face it — more feminine? What do we want men to do — just hate themselves and give up? Why can’t we be nicer?

Well, here’s the thing. We’ve tried being nicer, and it didn’t work. This movement did not come out of nowhere. It’s not some sudden outbreak of “hysteria,” much as it might be comforting to return to Victorian superstitions about women’s wombs overheating and leaping up en masse to strangle our critical faculties. Women have been trying to reason with men for some sort of sexual and social justice for — oh, god knows how long, but I can certainly speak for my own entire adult life. I’m a sucker who believes in infinite second chances, and even I’m sick of waiting. Fuck it. They were warned.

The question of what we do with abusers in our midst, abusers who some of us might love, has been tearing apart communities I have been close to for years. I have seen it happen again and again. Truths long hidden are spoken, and before long it is the people telling those truths — usually women — who are blamed, not for lying, but for causing harm — as if harm were not already being done, had not already been done, for years.

I have watched the collective inability to deal with the fact that “good” men might not always do good things fracture communities and friendships. I have been involved in restorative justice processes in activist circles. Restorative justice is meant to be a way of delivering some sort of restitution within communities without involving the legal system — and a lot of communities have legitimate reasons not to want the police poking around in their lives. That’s what it is meant to be in theory. In practice, what it has often turned out to mean is a lot of women doing a lot of emotional heavy lifting and being variously demonized for causing trouble while men promise to change and don’t.

Some months ago, I was part of a large group of women, many of them victims and survivors, wondering what to do about a repeat rapist who many of us still cared for deeply. Because I am, as mentioned, a soft touch, I was one of the people on call to make sure he wasn’t in immediate danger of hurting himself after his transgressions were finally made known. Plans were drawn up for how he could make amends; programs for his healing were suggested; timetables were proposed for when and if the press or police should be called in. Almost nobody wanted the guy’s entire life ruined, but it was hard to know what justice would look like otherwise. The issue was only resolved when one of us who had been trying to stop this man from hurting any more of her friends for over a decade stayed up late, went on Twitter, and decided, you know what, fuck it: he’d had enough chances. She wasn’t waiting any more.

Everyone freaked out, including me. I was among the ones saying that we should give him more time, no, he really does want to change, he’s trying to understand what he did wrong, and if we go hard we’re going to lose him. I had forgiven him the demeaning, dehumanizing things he had done to me long ago, and I had forgotten that it was not my job to decide whether anyone else should do the same. I was terrified that this man, who I loved deeply and still do, would end his life. I was angry at Twitter Justice Girl for forcing the issue. I thought she had gone too far.

The real risk here is that we will let our very human compassion for men in pain be exploited to undermine a movement for sexual justice and liberation for everyone.

I was wrong. She did the right thing. We only found out how much of the right thing she’d done when all the other stories started coming out. The guy had spent 20 years hurting women on three separate continents and — I find it hard to write this, so give me a moment — he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to stop until the women who loved him stopped giving him chances. He might have wanted to stop, but he didn’t have to, so he wasn’t going to.

So when I am asked if this movement is going too far, being too brutal, I don’t always know how to answer. I know that the climate is, for once, less than merciful to men. I know that men are scared. I also know that this could not have happened any other way. I don’t want to live in a world where men don’t change until you threaten to destroy everything they love. I wanted to believe that men would care enough about women to want to change of their own accord. It is precisely because I’m enough of a sucker to endlessly assume the best of men that I wanted to believe this.

The real risk here is that we will let our very human compassion for men in pain be exploited to undermine a movement for sexual justice and liberation for everyone. This would have been easier to avoid if we had not made it so very normal for men to be emotionally castrated, so very routine for them to expect women to shoulder all of the burden of emotional work in society.

The problem is not simply that so many men are unable to cope with fear and distress — it’s also that society at large is unable to cope with male fear and distress, whereas women’s pain is normalized, made invisible, and accepted up to a certain degree as our lot in nature and creation.

* * *

Part of the reason you see women reacting with anger when men try to put their own feelings back into the discussion of consent and abuse is that many women — most women — have spent far too long being forced to behave as if men’s feelings were the only thing that mattered, and that hurting men’s feelings was the worst possible thing they could do. If you’ve been made to believe your whole life that it is your job to make men feel good, you might not be in the best place to hear a request to moderate your tone, and that’s okay.

You want to talk about men and their emotions? So do I, and I hope you’re up to it.

Empathy, however, is a non zero-sum game. We are not going to water down women’s liberation by thinking harder about how men feel about patriarchy and their place within it — particularly not right now, when men’s feelings are such a huge part of the picture of violence and silence and shame that is slowly coming into terrible public focus.

In short: yes, men’s feelings matter. It does not have to be part of every feminist’s work to pay attention to them, but I consider it part of mine. I want to understand why men do what they do and how, given that it is not practically or economically possible to simply send half the species to a landfill, we can get them to behave better. Understanding and condoning are not synonymous. I am here to change the world, not to hold your hand.

But if we are to talk about men’s feelings, we have to really talk about them, and that might hurt. It involves poking at the soft and painful places beneath the carapace of masculine posturing. It involves talking about the full spectrum of emotion, including vulnerability, disappointment, loneliness, embarrassment, and fear — all of those unmanly feelings men and boys are bullied out of acknowledging. You want to talk about men and their emotions? So do I, and I hope you’re up to it.

* * *

The conversation the whole world is having right now about sexual violence and male privilege is not an issue of identity, but one of action. Men see an uprising against sexual violence and ask, first, who they are supposed to be — rather than what they might have done. So many of the knee-jerk defenses of men who have done violent things, celebrities and ordinary guys alike, start on the premise that they are “not that sort of person.”

But being a good guy isn’t about who you are, it’s about what you do. And everyone is that sort of person — everyone who grew up in patriarchy and learned that sex was both a terrible thing that women might one day suffer you to do to them and something that was vital to their identity as a man.

When men do shitty things to women, they don’t do it because that’s the way men are, but because that’s the way men feel, and men have been permitted very few ways to manage their emotions that are not violent or toxic — so few, in fact, that I suspect many of them come to understand the link between difficult feelings, overwhelming longings, and ugly actions as all but inevitable.

So no, I don’t hate men. I hate how brittle and fragile modern masculinity is; how it reacts to any perceived threat by lashing out and shutting down.

This is a fear that I think — I suspect — is very common among men struggling to know what it means to be one in the modern age: that there is something inherently hateful and destructive in maleness itself, that there is some sort of original taint written in their genes, and that women as a whole might have correctly identified it. That’s why the first and worst thing men say to women fighting for their own liberation is that they “hate men.” It assumes that asking men to change their behavior is, and must be, the same as hating what they are on the deepest level.

Men and boys are not required to hate themselves. Shame and self-hate don’t help anyone else. They don’t make you a better person, or a better man, or even a better fuck. In fact, more often than not, hating yourself gets in the way of exactly the sort of rapid positive change we need right now. We’ve all met people who are so enamored by their own self-loathing that it’s actually pretty difficult to talk to them about small everyday things they might have got wrong. They’re so invested in thinking that they are a bad person that they are unable to become a better one.

Self-hatred makes people selfish. It deserves compassion, but not indulgence. Women — and I’m sorry to have to break this to you — are not put on this earth to make men feel better about how inherently awful they are. Most of us would prefer the men in our lives to stop wallowing and get on with being a little bit more considerate than they were yesterday, because that is what it means to grow the fuck up.

So no, I don’t hate men. I hate how brittle and fragile modern masculinity is; how it reacts to any perceived threat by lashing out and shutting down. I hate how part of our worn-out script of maleness is by definition resistant not just to change, but even to the thought of change, and how tightly swaddled the whole thing is in shame and silence.

* * *

It would be easier, sometimes, not to love men. It would be easier to be exactly as unforgiving as we, people who ask for something with the flavor of sexual justice, are often painted. But since I am stuck with a heart that is no better than it ought to be, since I cannot seem to stop loving men and wanting the best for them, since I remain convinced that the way we get to a better world is ultimately together, or not at all, I want to know what comes next, and how we get through this dreadful, difficult transition period. That’s where it helps to remember that we have always been learning how to be human, and that when social and technological changes make new demands of us, it often takes a crisis to force that movement forward. Here comes a history lesson.

In the summer of 1858, the Thames was a reeking open sewer. London’s population had been growing for decades as the industrial revolution pulled people to the city. Slums sprouted like mushrooms in a dank labyrinth of streets where the height of fancy plumbing was a top-floor window to piss out of. The streets themselves were full of rot and manure, overflowing with the slop from tanneries and factories; what sewers did exist were emptied into the Thames, which became thick with human waste. And then the temperatures began to rise. The mercury hit 97 degrees in the shade. The City Press newspaper dropped the platitudes: “Gentility of speech is at an end — it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” It took us a long time to learn how to live in modern cities. Intervention — in the form of more modern sewage solutions — only came about when the alternative was collapse, when London was at the point of dissolving into its own filth. Engineers had to dig the first modern water-treatment systems under already-existing cities. Some of those pipes are still working today.

The internet is not a mega city — it is not a space at all — but we do live together online, as in the industrial revolution, in stranger ways and greater numbers than we yet have the infrastructure to cope with. As more and more of our social and professional lives migrate to the internet, the “global village” theorized about by Marshall McLuhan has now been swallowed by a series of awesome, terrifying, dangerous, brilliant global cities, just as the suburbs of London were swallowed by the metropolis. Cities need different infrastructure. We are now going through another sort of Great Stink, and we need to work out new ways to deal with our shit.

We can’t just cover it up. Not anymore. That was the standard sewage solution for pre-industrial revolution humans, who had always lived in smaller communities where it was almost enough to simply dig a hole for the nasty stuff and move the outdoor privy every few years. If a few too many people got sick and died, that was just life. It had to get a lot messier before anyone decided to do anything about it. However we learn to live together in the future, if we do, we’re going to have to build new social infrastructure as we go, figure out ways to actually process what we were previously able to bury alive.

We are now going through another sort of Great Stink, and we need to work out new ways to deal with our shit.

And yes, it’s going to be messy. No, it’s not going to be nice. But there’s a difference between being kind and being nice. No, the #MeToo movement is not nice. Victims of abuse who call out abuse are not “nice,” not in the original, vestigial sense of “nice,” a word that simply means “orderly, safe, tidy, and neat.” But that does not make them unkind. My big fear is that the rush to accept these men back into our hearts and communities — the urge to soothe and make everything okay — will involve sweeping everything back under the carpet.

Please trust me that ultimately, most of these men are going to be just fine. They are going to have to live a little differently, but they are not at as much risk of losing everything as it sometimes feels like. I know what it is like to be publicly shamed, to be humiliated, to be threatened with social ostracization. I have, in fact, experienced full-on community shunning several times — including once when I dared tell the truth about my rapist. Ostracization is no joke, whether or not you deserve it. It hits at a primal panic. But I also know that ostracization can be survived, and that sometimes, even in the heat of internet outrage, it is possible to stay in the room with people’s rage and learn from it.

What I have said to the men I know and love going through the sort of panicked personal reckoning where time telescopes down and it becomes impossible to imagine any sort of future — the first thing I want to say — is that you will survive this. I promise. We will survive it, together. I can’t promise you’ll be forgiven, but I’m willing to bet you’ll get a second chance at intimacy and security in the future, as long as you work to deserve it now.

You may feel as if you’re at risk of losing everything, but that is not the case. The thing that is going to determine your character is not just what you did then, it’s what you do now. This matters beyond any one individual or community. It matters for our societies on a much broader scale that you stay here in this place of discomfort. A hell of a lot of men are being courted by far-right, anti-democratic ideologies off the back of this. It makes emotional sense. When one group throws you out, you run to the group that will have you — I’ve done that before, and regretted it, though never with such high stakes. The new right laps up young and not-so-young men who feel wronged and misunderstood. They will fry your heart and eat it. Do not trust them.

I’m being blunt here not because I don’t care, but because I do — and I also know what it’s like. Really. I know something about how it feels to have the world at large think the worst of you, and to say so in no uncertain terms. I have been called out before. I have been flamed all over he internet and had people try to destroy my reputation; sometimes I had things to answer for and sometimes I did not. It sucked every time. I have not recovered everything I have lost from the times I was mercilessly called out — but I am also a better, braver, kinder person than I was before. My sympathy is slightly limited by the double standard at work here — the sort of social shunning and shaming women like me face for being a bit annoying is equivalent to what men face for being an actual sexual predator. You know what’s worse than being accused of rape? Being raped. You know what’s worse than being worried that you can no longer flirt in the way you used to? Being unable to express desire in any way without fearing for your safety. Being told that your sexuality itself is an invitation to violence. Being told you have no agency at all, and having that repeatedly confirmed by men who treat you like so much walking meat.

Yes, being asked to answer for past acts of sexual violence is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but being the victim of sexual violence is worse. The point of learning how to be accountable is to make sure neither of those things are as common in the future as they are now.

Suck it up and let go. Let go of your resentment at women’s lack of patience, let go of your wounded pride, let go of your useless shame, and let go of the idea of being a ‘good guy.’

Part of adulthood is learning, slowly and painfully, how to rectify past mistakes, make amends, and move on. Many of us spend a lifetime learning how to do that within our intimate communities, and some of us never do. The dreadful truth, however, is that growing up in public as a political being is a wholly different experience now than it was in previous generations — we need to do it faster, smarter, and with more flexibility than was required of our parents and grandparents.

We are afraid of fucking up, and we are right to be afraid. Fucking up is embarrassing, and hurtful, and can damage both the fucker-upper and the up-fucked. It is also inevitable. It is part of learning how to be human, especially in a volatile and fast-moving political culture. The plain fact is that if you want to be part of a cause that’s bigger than yourself, you will, at some point, fuck up, unless you’re among the rare subset of the human species who tumbled from the womb with perfect politics.

So I do understand how it feels, and it’s coming from a place of sympathy, as well as love, when I tell you to suck it up.

Suck it up and let go. Let go of your resentment at women’s lack of patience, let go of your wounded pride, let go of your useless shame, and let go of the idea of being a “good guy.” “Good” is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do, or don’t do. The world is not neatly divided into good and bad men. It never was, and we need to let go of the idea that it ever was, so that we can finally be better to one another, finally learn to deal with our shit like grown-ups in this strange new cityscape we’re crawling through together, trying to find our way to the light. That’s the only way we’re going to move from a place of holding abusers to account, into a future where abuse is less likely to happen.

We won’t get to that world by continuing to infantilize men, nor by clinging to the curiously sexist belief that they are too fragile to cope with the consequences of their actions. That sort of belief might be nice, but ultimately, it is not kind. It is not a kindness to have low expectations of men, to always be doing the emotional work for them. It is not a kindness to give in to the threat — so common in abusive relationships — that if we don’t do what they want, they will do violence to themselves, or to us, or both. For a long time, I thought that I was being loving to men by expecting less of them. I thought wrong. I was not being loving. I was not being kind. I was only being nice — and nice is not enough.

The Horizon of Desire
We’re All Mad Here
The Unforgiving Minute
The Consent of the (Un)governed
We’re Not Done Here

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Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. Her Longreads essays have been nominated for a National Magazine Award in Columns and Commentary.

Editor: Ben Huberman