How we wake up to the misogyny in our midst

This post by sexologist Jill McDeviitt is quite astonishing. It chronicles her rage at being sent an entirely inappropriate e-mail by a man she had never met, and his subsequent approach to her parents when she threatened to publish the e-mail on her blog.

It is yet another story of how men send women inappropriate, disgusting and/or downright illegal messages over the Internet – an issue that we have been discussing all week.

The part of McDevitt’s post that I found particularly revelatory is when she describes how her parents behaved, when the man contacted them (he was the husband of someone who worked with Jill’s step-mother):

I’m left to marvel not just at your individual misogyny, but also the infantilizing sexism that exists in the back corners and in the cobwebs of the brains of everyone involved.

Receiving a repugnant email from you, a strange man, is bad enough. But what makes this case so compelling is how you were able to entangle my normally feminist and self-aware family, illuminating just how deep tolerance of predatory men goes in our society.

This point is indeed compelling. I suspect many women, and people from ethnic minorities, already know what it is like to be denied the benefit of the doubt in this manner. But as a white, middle-class male, such experiences are alien to me. In fact, it is literally unimaginable: I cannot really conceive of how such a situation could possibly arise for me. Its fascinating to have an insight into the unfairness that some women are subjected to, and to understand their indignation at having to put up with it.

And the reason that such behaviour continues in this enlightened age is precisely that people like me find it difficult, or even impossible, to imagine. The mental chain of events that took place in McDevitt’s anecdote are not unique. It was a similar combination of disbelief and sexist assumptions that allowed Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall to perpetrate their abuse. We need more stories like Jill’s, to cure ourselves of our incredulity.

In the debate about sexism and Tweeted rape threats, there is a certain strain of thought that says that the technology is too open and needs to be censored. But the only reason we are hearing about this unacceptable behaviour is because of the new technology. If Jill McDevitt had received a telephone call and not an e-mail, she would not have been able to expose the unpleasant person and his ridiculous words. Frankly, it is unlikely many people would have believed her version of what was said. It would have been assumed that she was over-reacting. He would have received the benefit of the doubt.

This is how we wake up to the misogyny in our midst. It has always been there, but it is the new communications technology that is shining a light into this recess of our society.

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