I need feminism because EVERYTHING

So recently my university has been taking part in a nationwide campaign run by student unions (though I think it started as a tumblr), where people of all genders are photographed holding up signs that say ‘I need feminism because…’, and filled out however they like. (My sister’s university also took part a month ago, and it made me insanely excited to hear her talking about how inspired she’d been.) The tumblr is here, and I’ve been following it for a while, but it was really fantastic to actually be out there doing it, and seeing people I knew taking part as well. There are dozens of things I could have said, but I couldn’t write all of them, and so since I still don’t have time to do a post on any proper topics, I thought I’d jot down a few of things I definitely wanted to say. Oh, and the series as a whole is brilliant, with lots of people being far more powerful and inspiring and articulate and hilarious than me, so I would definitely recommend taking a look. Okay, here goes.

I need feminism because wanting to be treated like a person does not make me ‘crazy’.

I need feminism because she was never ‘asking for it’.

I need feminism because you can make your own damn sandwich.

I need feminism because men are ‘players’, but women are ‘sluts’.

I need feminism because I said no and he didn’t stop.

I need feminism because your ‘intellectual debate’ is my real life.

I need feminism because my sexual orientation is not for anyone’s entertainment.

I need feminism because I love sex, and won’t be made to apologise for it.

I need feminism because I am more than a sex object.

I need feminism because people like this still exist.

I need feminism because my right to choose is not up for debate.

I need feminism because feminist men are better in bed.

I need feminism because someone else’s gender identity is no one’s business but their own.

I need feminism because I wear short skirts and corsets for me, not for anyone else.

I need feminism because I won’t always be there to protect my little sister.

I need feminism because ‘almost equal’ isn’t good enough.

I need feminism because I still need to remind myself to check my privilege.

I need feminism because I don’t know if I want children.

I need feminism because it shouldn’t be controversial not to shave or wax.

I need feminism because I know men too afraid of being mocked to call themselves feminists.

I need feminism because there are so many people out there who think it’s irrelevant.

I need feminism because I care.

I need feminism because I expect more.

I need feminism because I haven’t given up yet.

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For confident and assertive girls who don’t “need” feminism

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had quite a few opportunities to be a feminist in ‘real life’. A mixture of student journalism and seminar-style work has given me the opportunity to put a lot of what I throw around here into practice, and that’s been really awesome and helpful, both for me and (hopefully) the people I’ve been talking with. I’ve been sharing my personal experiences and also broader views, and as such I have been consistently labeled as a feminist. Sometimes a sex-positive feminist, sometimes an LGBT+ feminist, and sometimes just a girl who’s really into women’s issues (which I know isn’t exactly the same thing, but if the shoe fits, etc.). While I generally don’t believe labels are all that helpful, I’m proud of that one, all the more so now that it’s become a dirty word that is so often used to dismiss arguments (‘crazy angry man-hating feminists, of course they’re going to get their panties in a twist over the coverage of the Steubenville rape case’, and the like – yes, I think it’s horrific, no, I don’t have anything new or insightful to add to it).

The upshot is that one of the things I’ve been told a lot is that I sound like I’ve always been a feminist, that I have the kind of confidence and assurance in my views that makes my arguments compelling. And I couldn’t be more flattered to hear this. But it’s got me thinking about when and how that came about. More specifically, it’s reminded me of a moment I thought I’d forgotten, a moment I am certainly not proud of.

I was fifteen, recently out as bi at school, and still working out this whole sexuality thing. I was definitely into LGBT+ rights though, and talked passionately about things like gay marriage and homophobic bullying in schools. One of my friends from the scene was chatting to me online one day, talking about how she’d had a really awful day, being overwhelmed with news stories full of misogynistic bullshit, and how it was really getting her down. I don’t know how we got onto whether or not I was a feminist, but I clearly remember dismissing her. No, I’m not a feminist. I just don’t think we really need all that anymore, do we? Women have equal rights now. I just think there are more important things.

I cringe to remember that, my fifteen-year-old self parroting a line I now wince to hear, a classic trolling argument. There are so many things wrong with that statement it embarrasses me that I once believed it, especially given how progressive I thought I was. I don’t recall what happened, but I think my friend backed off pretty quickly, shocked to have someone she thought was an ally turn against her so obviously.

The thing is, when I was fifteen, I really didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise. I was raised by liberal, open-minded parents. My mother had a successful career and had never changed her name when she got married (one of the reasons I laugh when people tell me I ought to change mine when the time comes because ‘it’s nice to make everyone feel like a family‘ – right, because I clearly didn’t have a family). More importantly, they’d sent me to a fantastic school, one that had been set up on the principle that girls were just as intelligent as boys, and deserved exactly the same chances.

While I know that there can be many problems with a single-sex educational environment, for me, going to an all-girls school was amazing. I know how privileged this makes me, but before I was seventeen (when I first started meeting boys), I genuinely believed that misogyny and sexism were over. Men who believed that women were less competent or ambitious or successful were something we studied in history lessons. There was never even the slightest hint that science and maths were ‘boys’ subjects’ – the most popular subject for A-level was maths. I was taught from my very first day that I was going to be academically successful, as successful as any man, probably more so. I was taught confidence, self-assurance, how to present my views, argue my case, speak with passion and with conviction. I was taught to value myself, and I was surrounded by highly intelligent women, both teachers and students, who thought the same.

I was lucky, and I was privileged. I owe my parents and my circumstances a huge amount for my education, and for the way I am now. But the thing about privilege is that most of the time you don’t realise you have it. That’s one of the privileges. I’d never met anyone who treated women like second-class citizens, like sex objects, like baby-making machines, like children, like collections of hormones – in short, like anything other than full and equal human beings. I knew the history, but I thought it was just that, history. I thought sexism ended when women got the vote. And worst of all, I thought women who thought otherwise were whining and overreacting and acting like victims.

That’s why, when my friend asked if I was a feminist, I denied it so strongly. It took a lot to get me from that to where I am today, a lot of I’m not a feminist, I just believe women should be treated equally, a lot of I’m very much for equal pay and abortion rights, I’m just not one of those crazy feminists. Beginning to understand rape culture took three horrible direct encounters with it, and even then it was a year before I properly began reading and connected what had happened to me with all this ‘feminism’ business that was floating around. (How that came about is the subject of another post entirely, but is just as important.) In short, it took work.

I love my school, and my old teachers. I owe them a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I realise how lucky I was to have been brought up that way. But in a conscious effort to raise young women to value themselves and to never doubt that they were worth as much as any man, they missed out something crucial. They never taught me that this was an effort, and that, in the real world, life wasn’t like that. In all honesty, I was probably happier that way, not knowing. But when people act surprised that I have such conviction in what I believe now and the confidence to express it, it makes me think about how I learnt that confidence alongside being taught that the issues I am so passionate about didn’t exist.

I hope there’s a middle ground, somehow. I really, really want to find it.

Let’s paint rainbows on the ceiling

So now for some good news! Big national issue, mixed with a dash of personal experience, and broadening the definition of what a lot of (non-feminist) people think feminism is. A winning combination, no?

On Tuesday the UK House of Commons voted to legalise same-sex marriage. And that is awesome.

There are about a hundred articles you can read on this on mainstream newspaper websites (about a dozen on the BBC alone), plus countless opinion pieces, not to mention the blogosphere. If you’re not British and you want to find out more about the debate and how what happened and who voted what, spent some time browsing, because it really is an amazing story. I am most certainly not a Tory, and to say I have issues with our Prime Minister, David Cameron, would be an understatement. However, no matter how cynical you are, you can’t get away from the fact that the government did something awesome this week. Same-sex civil partnerships have been around since 2007, with almost exactly equal rights, but taking the step to extend marriage to all couples means something.

The fact that our Prime Minister went against the majority of his own party to do this also matters. Yes, I know people have been saying it’s a shameless political stunt to try to appeal the liberals and distract the public from economic issues, and all that may be true. But I’m not going to vote Tory in the next election, and neither are my left-wing progressive friends. The gay marriage vote won’t change that. So Cameron has risked isolating himself from his party without the chance of winning votes from the left, and even if his motives for doing this were entirely self-centred, the fact is we still won. And we won with a Tory government and a Prime Minister who is so ridiculously backward and conservative in so many ways. And that makes me a very happy kitten, even with all the rest of the bullshit.

So now for the personal bit. I don’t really like picking a sexuality label, aside from ‘queer’, but the one that best suits me is ‘bi’. I like girls. I haven’t talked about liking girls much on this blog, because my sexuality tends to fluctuate, and right now I’m definitely in a straight-er phase, but when I was a teenager I was pretty heavily involved in the gay scene, and gay marriage was something I used to fantasise about. Part of this was the mad idea that, if it was legalised, I’d be able to come out to my parents because I’d somehow have the government’s approval and would be able to stop hiding. (I’m not sure why I was hiding from my liberal and open-minded parents, I just was.) I didn’t have a long-term girlfriend I actually wanted to marry – in fact, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to get married to anyone, of any gender. But the formal recognition that these were valid relationships and a valid identity mattered hugely to me, even if I didn’t quite understand at the time what it all meant.

When it comes to LGBT+ issues, people like to talk a lot about impressionable children, children who need to be protected and kept innocent, who don’t have the maturity to deal with complicated issues like sexuality. They’ve been saying that a lot about the gay marriage bill. And whenever I hear that, I think back to my own childhood (like that was so terrible far away, says the girl in her early twenties). I am very privileged to have a very large, very close extended family, with friends my parents have had since their teens being counted as honorary aunts and uncles. We have family events a couple of times a year, which always include these added extras. One of these honorary uncles is my godfather. My parents aren’t Christian, and they don’t really believe in the idea of godparents, but he was a close friend, and they wanted him to feel included in our family. I grew up with this man at every significant event in my life, and it was understood that, if anything bad happened, he was someone I could turn to.

My godfather would always turn up to family occasions with his boyfriend. There have been a couple that I remember, each lasting between five and ten years, and they were always invited with him. My parents never explicitly told me or my sister that he was gay, and that the men he brought were his partners, but then, they didn’t need to. We were young, and didn’t really have a concept of the different types of relationships. As far as I was concerned, my aunts and uncles all brought their spouses, and my godfather brought his. Who happened to be male. It was that much of a non-issue.

I didn’t start thinking and learning about gay rights and alternative sexualities until I was fourteen and in love with my best friend. And then it was this made haze of hormones and tears and intense feeling that seemed to consume me, as it often is for teenagers experiencing their first crush. I didn’t think about my godfather – I was too busy thinking about the other girls at school and what they’d think of me. It was only much later that I realised how completely insignificant my godfather’s homosexuality had been to his inclusion in our family. Exposure to his same-sex relationships hadn’t ‘turned me gay’ (if it had, I might have been less panicked about the whole liking girls thing), nor had it confused me as child. I don’t think I ever even asked my mother why he always brought a man as his guest, but if I had, I’m sure her response would have been ‘Because that’s his partner’, and that would have been it.

What I mean to say by all this is that I think a lot of people forget what being a child is actually like. Children don’t need ‘protecting’ from sexuality, because sexual issues generally bore them. Unlike adults, they’re not obsessed with sex, and if they ask a question out of curiosity, they’ll most likely move onto something else as soon as they have the answer. If they hear that two men or two women have got married, or if they go to a same-sex wedding, chances are they’ll just accept it. And maybe, years later, when they’re starting to have tricky complicated feelings that hurt and confuse and bewilder them, they’ll remember that people their parents admired and respected ended up with same-sex partners, so it must be alright really. And that’s worth an awful lot.

In conclusion, I am happy. We have so much left to fix, and this may only be a symbolic victory, but it is a victory all the same. And this week, in a thoroughly British and understated way, I am proud of my country.

Julie Burchill does not speak for me

The latest shit storm to hit the UK progressive blogosphere is an ‘article’ (diatribe) in the Observer by Julie Burchill, about how ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. It was the sort of transphobic hate-speech you’d use as as a theoretical example to demonstrate what transphobic hate-speech looked like. It was finally taken down, but I think republished on the Telegraph website because of ‘free speech’ issues. (Sidenote: one of these days I am going to spend some time and energy working out a way to explain that free speech =/= right to a privileged high-profile platform. I have free speech. I post stuff on my blog. Doesn’t mean I feel I have the right to be printed in national newspapers. Though if anyone would like to, that’d be awesome?) I’m not going to link to it, but it’s pretty easy to google, and there’s a very well-written letter to the Observer here, and a good summary plus some further reading material here at The F Word. I would strongly advise reading all of it.

ETA: Jezebel has done a round-up that is also brilliant, complete with appropriate gifs. Feel free to share more links in the comments, if you find something else worth reading.

So what do I have to add? Well, very little. I’m a privileged cisgendered white girl, and I know it. I don’t really blog about my gender identity. Or rather, I do. I take it as a given. I try to use non-gendered language when I can, and usually I’m writing about very specific personal experience, so it’s less relevant, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do a great job of it. I  don’t talk about non-binary gender issues because the simple fact is I don’t feel qualified, and I would much rather anyone reading this went off and read some amazing trans* and genderqueer blogs instead of my clumsy summaries. I have gay and lesbian friends. I have trans* friends. I have genderqueer friends, and friends whose gender identities do not fit neatly into any particular label. This does not make me qualified to talk about gender issues, and though I like to think of myself as an ally (don’t we all), I know that there are gaping holes in my knowledge, that I am going to slip up sometimes, and that it is not my place to discuss it.

And yet, even with all of that, here’s what I’m going to say about Julie Burchill’s piece. It is hate speech, pure and simple. I am heartened by the fact that so many people outside of the LGBT+ community have acknowledged that it is hate speech, and that it eventually got taken down. It is full of disgusting, vitriolic, downright violent sentiment, and it got the response it deserved.

But I don’t doubt for a moment that Julie Burchill genuinely believes it. And the thing is, if you read it closely (which I don’t advise if you’re having a bad day), you see that she’s not really talking about trans* people at all. She’s talking about men. Men in dresses, men who want to ‘cut their dicks off’ (that’s a direct paraphrase of a tweet by Suzanne Moore), men who are pretending to be women in order to enter her feminist space.

In her mind, a trans woman is a man. And that makes everything she says from that point onwards impossible to argue with, because that basic premise is so entirely detached from reality there’s no way to persuade her. She is wrong. She is so appallingly, horrifyingly, dangerously wrong. But she is wrong in such a way that I don’t think there’s any space for dialogue here. It’s like those people who argue that black people are just biologically less intelligent than white people, or that the Holocaust never happened (oh look, I just broke Godwin’s Law, deal with it). The point is, when someone is starting from a point of view that just doesn’t make any sense, anything that comes after that is… irrelevant.

That’s not to say I think we should be ignoring it. It is hate speech, it should not have been published, and she deserves to be vilified for what she wrote. Maybe the strong wave of anti-transphobic sentiment is a good thing, long-term? I don’t know, nor do I feel it’s my place to offer an opinion. But Julie Burchill will not change her mind, just like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel will never change their minds. To them, trans women are just men who want to invade their special exclusive feminism, and I can’t see them ever going back on that.

That is not any kind of feminism I want to be part of. And while I try very hard to stay away from defining what feminism is or isn’t for other people, in my mind, that’s not really feminism at all? Burchill has yet to learn both that trans women are women, and that feminism isn’t just about women anyway – it’s about groups that lack privilege, whether due to gender identity, sexuality, race, class, disability, or anything else.

The one thing her original article has done is get feminists and progressives from all over to state loudly and publicly that this woman does not speak for us. She certainly does not speak for me. And I think that’s important. I just wish we didn’t need to say it in the first place.

That rare and exotic creature: the feminist man

Aaaaand it’s the holidays, everyone breathe. I am becoming reacquainted with a long-lost friend, sleep, and with a host of terrible TV shows offered on iplayer. It is wonderful. Happy holidays to everyone, and I hope that you all get the rest that you deserve. Short days (dark at 4pm – what is this madness?!) and weather that freezes my ears make me hate this time of year, so it’s good to remember that there are some benefits.

I never did find out what happened with Icarus and Mystery-Girl, but sadly I think he probably didn’t take my advice to just ask her what was going on. People seldom do. Maybe sex-positive communicative feminism is just too extreme and hardcore for the world to handle. Or maybe my friends are afraid of becoming sexually frustrated bloggers who chronicle their lives on the internet in order to avoid the harsh truths of reality. Which would be fair enough. I sympathise either way.

Anyway. Some of you might remember Leander, an absolutely awesome guy I was seeing last year, and who remains one of my closest friends. Leander has had a wonderful girlfriend since February, and they have the sort of healthy, communicative relationship I keep going on about. He is also still a passionate feminist and addicted to the progressive blogosphere, which is one reason why I love him. This can sometimes surprise people, since Leander is a straight white male (or ostensibly straight, at any rate), who went to a posh school and has professional upper-middle-class parents. In other words, he’s basically the poser child for privilege.

This has a couple of interesting outcomes. For one thing, people tend to listen to him a lot more than they ever do to me, because while I am either a crazy man-hating feminist or an irrational and hysterical woman, Leander is a calm, reasonable man who talks sense. Even when we are making the exact same arguments about the exact same topics. This is often frustrating for me, but it’s not his fault he’s more persuasive, and really, I should be happy that he’s out there making an impact. Any way to win battles, and all that.

But I don’t think I ever realised the flip-side of this until about a week ago, when Leander posted a general acknowledgment on facebook that he is proud to call himself a feminist, because he believes that men and women are equals, and doesn’t see why other people who believe this wouldn’t want to be called feminists. It was, in my opinion, a nice gesture, but nothing particularly loaded or provocative. I post about abortion and rape apologia and sexism all the time, usually in response to news stories, so this didn’t seem that shocking in comparison.

The responses he got astounded me. One was a genuine concern from a black female friend that the term ‘feminism’ has a problematic history for non-white women, which is why she prefers not to use it, and I can appreciate that. But the rest? It was like someone had unleashed the Men’s Rights Brigade. Immediately there were comments about Bad Feminists, the kind who actively discriminate against men and think all men are rapists and want to castrate them all. When Leander pointed out that these are a tiny minority (if they even exist) and that every group has its fringe extremists but that these don’t speak for the entire group, he was called out for being a hypocrite. Sexism is widespread and mainstream in our society (check any article on rape or on the appointment of a woman in a position of power for some instant evidence), but apparently it’s more important to criticise radical straw-feminists than to fix any of that. Until the movement is perfect, no one should identify with it at all. Or… something like that.

Now, these aren’t new arguments, much as their proponents might think we’re all hearing them for the first time. I’ve lost count of the number of times ‘well-meaning’ guys have approached me with horror stories about Things Feminists Have Said, expecting me to either justify extreme anti-male prejudice or admit that I’m not a real feminist because I disagree. But usually it comes out of some previous discussion, not out of the blue. These were people – men, I should add – reacting to a simple statement of support for women with shock and horror, as if Leander had said he believed passionately in killing kittens.

It’s not that I don’t get negative replies to what I say and write – I do – but somehow this felt different. Leander didn’t get dismissed as irrational, or have anyone patronise him by trying to explain ‘logically’ why he was incorrect, which is the most common response to me. His gender and his privilege protected him from that, but also added to the shock these commenters clearly felt. It was as if they’d latched onto the fact that one of their own was turning against them, and come out in force to bring him back in line. People who argue against me, however much they disagree, can usually understand where I’m coming from, even if that understanding only goes as far as ‘she’s a woman and she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about’. Not so with Leander. When I reread those comments, I can sense the confusion. Why on earth is a straight white guy like Leander supporting all this womanly nonsense?

And if the feminist-equals-woman link wasn’t clear enough, someone even commented with: ‘Don’t listen to haters Leander. You’re a strong independent woman!’. Because supporting equality for women, supporting an ideology that takes privilege away from those who have historically always had it, means you must be a woman, or at least gay and effeminate. That’s why Real Men don’t listen to feminism.

Leander is one of the most amazing guys I know, because he has such privilege, and instead of trying to cling on to it and refusing to see that he has it, he recognises it, and actively tries to make a difference. I hate everything about the assertion that men who do this aren’t masculine enough, from the gender-binary element of that idea to the way it automatically implies that being feminine or womanly is undesirable. But if we have to have it, then I want it on record that Leander is the realist Real Man I know, and I wish I knew more guys like him.

All I am going to say about Assange

I didn’t want to write about the current drama with Julian Assange at the moment. In fact, I still don’t. I try to avoid high-profile stories, especially since they’re usually not UK-based and what do I know anyway? But my facebook feed has exploded and this is a blog about liberal feminism and what good is talking about good communication and consent and gender equality if I’m too scared to write about something this significant happening in my country? That said, this is going to be short and sweet. Here goes.

I broadly agree with Wikileaks. I do not think Assange should be prosecuted or persecuted for what his organisation did. I think the American politicians who are calling for him to be extradited to the US to face trial there which could risk the death penalty are absurd. Laughable, in fact. Luckily, I think the chances of that happening are highly unlikely. The politicians in question are outraged about what he did, but he did not commit any crime on American soil, and therefore cannot be extradited there. One hopes.

This does not make him innocent of the sexual assault charges he is accused of in Sweden. It is highly possible to be innocent of one crime, and guilty of another. It is highly possible to be a wonderful fantastic talented person in numerous ways, and still be guilty of a crime. Wikileaks and whistle-blowing and all that has absolutely nothing to do with whether he is guilty of the sexual assault charges brought against him in Sweden.

Now, let’s talk about those charges. I’ve seen far too many posts today about how these charges aren’t ‘real’, how they’re either entirely fabricated or that even if they’re genuine they don’t count. He is accused of using his body-weight to hold a woman down and penetrate her against her will. That is rape. He is accused of penetrating a woman while she was asleep, without a condom, when she had specifically said she only consented to sex with a condom. That is rape, twice over (both the fact that she was asleep, and that he did something that was specifically against her consent). The fact that it would be incredibly difficult to prosecute that as rape in some countries, including the UK, does not make it not rape. In Sweden, which is where he allegedly committed these acts, it is legally rape. This is not in question.

Did he do it? How the hell should I know? He hasn’t faced trial. And if it turns out it’s all been fabricated by the CIA and they’re being paid off and none of it’s true? I have faith enough in the legal system to be confident that this will come out in the trial.  What’s more, I think it’s a casual and lazy excuse put forward by people who either believe naively that someone they support so strongly could never do anything wrong, or by people who don’t care whether he raped those women, because exposed US military secrets.

I care. And that is why I think he should be extradited to Sweden to face the very real charges against him. If he is found guilty, he should serve a prison sentence in Sweden, then be released. If he is found innocent, he should just be released.

This isn’t to do with the US and the death penalty and Wikileaks. This is a rape charge, and because it’s a rape charge, and the narratives that women make up rape all the time and it’s not rape unless it’s a stranger and it’s certainly not rape if you consented to one thing but not another already exist, his supporters are ready to dismiss it.

So my plea to all his supporters who are camped outside the Ecuadorian embassy ready to fight the police and who are calling for all charges to be dropped and who believe that the whole thing is just some US-generated conspiracy is this: if you really believe he is innocent, let him face trial. These women deserve to have their accusations heard and evaluated in a court of law. And if you were really that certain that Assange hadn’t done anything wrong, you wouldn’t be afraid of that.

Rape is rape, even if it’s a high-profile progressive liberal forcibly penetrating his lover without a condom. Seriously.

Real life is not the internet (thank goodness)

In my experience, every internet feminist likes to think that she (or he, although the male ones mostly identify as progressive bloggers, rather than specifically feminists) has something new to say about privilege. And the reason I’ve tried to stay clear of that up til now is that I don’t think that. Privilege is a tangled confusing messy concept, and my adventures in comment flame-wars have taught me that however well you think you’re explaining your point, someone is going to take issue with it. And when you’ve been in your umpteenth flame-war, and you’re hearing those tired old tropes of ‘men want to have sex with women, therefore you guys have all the power’ and ‘why are you getting upset about video games when there are children starving in Africa?’, you need something to dull the impact. Often, that means shorthand. We talk about Feminist Bingo, about Trolling and Derailing For Dummies, and Check Your Privilege. It doesn’t help us win any arguments, but then, this is the internet, we were never going to win. And it helps us feel safe and secure that we know what they’re doing, and we see through it.

All this is awesome, until you start to translate it to real life. Because, as I only started to realise recently, real life has fewer trolls than you might expect. Oh, there are definitely some: the drinking society lad at the party who wants to tell you it’s not ‘real rape’, or the EvoPsych student who goes on about how women are just naturally inferior to men. But by and large, they’re the minority. Most people I come across on a day-to-day basis don’t troll feminists sites attacking the authors with rape threats and and comments about how they’re too unattractive to be worth listening to. They don’t know what derailing is, and though they may well do it, it’s not not deliberate. And when they make arguments like ‘but what about the men?’, they’re not doing it to provoke a reaction or buy into an internet trope. They’re doing it because that is genuinely the first response to what you’re saying.

Now, that’s not a good thing, nor is it an excuse, but it’s not the total dead-end that it is online. Hard as it has been for me to accept this, the people who I chat to about rape culture and gender essentialism are often hearing my arguments for the very first time. Spend too long on the blogosphere and you start to believe that everyone knows and understands those terms, and that anyone who says otherwise is either a troll or a hopeless misogynist. But the guys I chat to at parties are neither, and sometimes all they need is a bit of time to process what I’m saying, because what you forget when you read feminist blogs is that these concepts are hard. Privilege in particular is difficult to understand. And I think in that case, the shorthand we use and the assumptions we make can often hold us back and prevent us from actually getting our point across. We’re so used to being attacked in the most horrible ways online that we assume an attack is always imminent. And while that’s completely justified (trust me, I’ve seen the comments feminist bloggers can get), it doesn’t actually help us convince anyone.

So here’s a way I’ve found that does, or at least has a better chance. I don’t use the word privilege. In progressive circles, ‘privilege’ has a very particular meaning. It means an innate advantage that society has granted someone, making certain aspects of their life easier than someone who does not have that advantage. That’s it. And everyone has privilege. One of the hardest things for me was accepting that being a non-straight woman did not cancel out the privilege I get from looking white and from coming from a well-off family. Because outside of those circles, ‘privileged’ means something else: it means wealthy entitled bastard. Seriously. Here in the UK it conjures up images of posh public schoolboys drifting effortlessly into top universities and high-paying jobs just because their father had a conversation with someone. It means never having to worry about money, and not caring about anyone who does. It means looking down on the rest of the world.

Now, I don’t deny those men are privileged, but they are few and far between. And the problem is that when you say ‘check your privilege!’ to someone, say a boy at a party, he won’t think about the fact that he never has to worry about walking home alone or whether or not he should wear makeup to a job interview. He won’t think about the lack of societal pressure for him give up work to get married and have children. He’ll just think about how hard he worked to get into university and how his parents are struggling financially right now and how he gives to charity once a month, and he’ll compare himself to The Privileged Bastards he knows so much about. He’s nothing like them! And so assumption that he’s privileged feels like a ridiculous and utterly unfair attack that has come out of nowhere from the mouth of some crazy angry feminist. And put in those terms, it kinda is.

((How do I know this? Because, I’m now ashamed to say, I spent a good six months convinced that anyone who called me out on my privilege was overreacting and just looking for an excuse to dismiss my opinion. I felt personally attacked, because couldn’t they see that I wasn’t a privileged person? I was a woman, for goodness sake. And I worked really hard to get into uni. They were being ridiculous. Clearly.))

So instead of using that word, a word that seems so obvious to me, I pause, breathe, and talk in examples and analogies instead. I talk about being bombarded with so many messages that a woman’s only value is her beauty that I always have to worry at interviews whether I’m being judged on my looks or my intellect, and if what I’m wearing one day might ‘send the wrong message’. I talk about always having to wonder whether it really is too late for the 10 minute walk home in the dark. I talk about having experienced so much belief that women really ought to be more domesticated that ‘woman, get back in the kitchen’ jokes can never be funny for me, regardless of intent.

And almost without fail, the guys I’m talking to look at me in an interested way and say ‘I’d never thought of that’. And that’s when I turn round and explain: that’s privilege. The ability to not even have to worry about the things that make up such a significant part of my life. I know you’d never thought about it before, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work incredible hard for what you’ve achieved. But you have the privilege of not even realising you have this advantage over me.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it takes a lot more discussion, and the temptation for me to scream that this is my life, damn it, can’t you just accept that? becomes almost unbearable. But mostly, I get somewhere, even if it’s not exactly where I wanted to be. It takes time and it is hard and I often wonder whether the effort  is worth it. But then I think about how long it took for me to get here, and how relieved and grateful I am that I did. And then one of those guys texts me to say he called out one of his friends on objectifying schoolgirls in short skirts, and I think yes.

I mean, I totally am a crazy angry feminist, but I don’t need them to know that.