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"How Can You Be a Feminist When...?" The Most Common Accusations, and How to Respond

06/02/2014 12:55 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

I'll begin with an admission: I am a feminist, that is, a person who thinks women are equal to men and deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect. This shouldn't be controversial, but I've learnt that whenever I bring this up, I am faced with an onslaught of interrogations and accusations, as well as shock that a real-life woman actually identifies as a feminist. I've responded to these so often that my replies have become almost scripted. To be clear, I do not presume to speak for all feminists, or for all manifestations of feminism; I'm just tired of hearing the same old attacks, and would like to take the chance to preemptively clear up a few things.

Feminists don't want equality, they want women to have superior rights to men.

Not true! Feminism is about equal rights, not just for women, but for everyone, and that includes a lot of other marginalised groups: e.g. LGBT+ people, non-white people, those with disabilities, anyone outside of the elite classes. Some may choose a different label (humanist, womanist, egalitarian), and that is their choice, but it is also valid to identify with the movement that has been making progress for women over the last century and a half. And yeah, there probably are some women who think that all men should be castrated, but you know what? There are men who think all women should be raped, white people who think black people should be deported, and Republicans who think those on benefits should starve. We don't use them as representations for the whole of their group, so don't take the most extreme feminists out there and force the rest of us to account for them.

Why doesn't feminism care about discrimination against men, like child custody cases and conscription?

It does. Do you see feminists campaigning that fathers be prevented from seeing their children, or that men should have to fight in wars? No. You see them arguing that women should not be forced to bear and raise the next generation, and that they deserve the same chance to progress in the army and fight on the front lines as men have. Now, it's true that fighting for custody for fathers is not one of our top priorities right now, though breaking down the gender stereotypes that see childcare as "women's work" certainly is. But if you want to run a campaign against the ways that "traditional" gender roles hurt men too (and they do!), then go for it. We will support you. We just won't put your priorities above our own. (Oh, and we haven't had conscription in the UK since 1963.)

Women lie about being raped all the time - innocent men shouldn't be convicted because of one woman's word.

Let's talk statistics. False rape reports in the UK are estimated at between 0.6% and 3%, about the same as every other crime. In no other crime, however, is the victim put on trial, with every aspect of her (or his - men get raped too) behaviour and lifestyle taken apart as proof that the crime did not happen. Defenders of rape will find any excuse to argue that the sex was consensual: because the victim had allowed herself to get drunk, because she was wearing a short skirt or tight jeans, because she knew the rapist, or recently, because even though she was screaming no, her rapist thought she meant yes. (From a 2009 Home Office survey: "36 per cent of people believe that a woman should be held wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted or raped if she was drunk, and 26 per cent if she was in public wearing sexy or revealing clothes.") Narratives like these create a culture where rapists know victims will not be taken seriously, and survivors are discouraged from filing reports, leading to incredibly lowconviction rates. Just look at the all the people jumping up to defend Woody Allen and accuse Mia Farrow and her daughter Dylan of lying. The problem here is not false accusations, but failure for police, prosecutors, juries and judges to take rape cases seriously.

No one is forcing women to shave/wax/diet/wear make-up etc., so what's the big deal?

No one is forcing us, but we're sure as hell judged if we don't conform. You can't watch TV without being bombarded with reminders that the female body in its natural form needs to be tamed with razors and paint and food deprivation in order to be deemed attractive. Just look at the abuse women face for daring to leave their body hair natural, or see Hillary Clinton judged "unfit for office" if she "doesn't sort her hair out". No, we are not being forced, but we are being pressured, and ridiculed beyond belief if we refuse. After a while, those things begin to look kind of similar.

Of course, these are just snapshot-answers to a range of complex issues - there is so much more to be said about all of them. But armed with these, I've found it's possible to turn an accusation into nuanced conversation, opening up discussions rather than shutting them down. Sometimes it even transpires that a lot of non-feminists believe in equal rights too. Shocking.