It’s 2005 in Cork. I’m 20 years old, technically a man. I live in a flat with two other technical men. We’re all Arts students of one form or another. If, for some reason, you’d asked me if I was a feminist, I‘d have said something along the lines of “Of course, how could you not be a feminist? I consider feminism to be the default.” I thought I was great.
It’s 2016 on Twitter. I’m 31 years old, married, mortgaged, with a serious job. If, for some reason, you asked me if I was a feminist I’d tie myself in knots trying to say that I was while also avoiding calling myself a Male Feminist because men are the worst and have somehow turned “supporting the equality of men and women” into a performance and a competition. Is that what I’m doing in this very essay? Well, it’s 1300 words that use feminism as a springboard to talk all about me and my male feelings so yes, I’m the worst.
Some college boys have done something terrible and misogynistic and it’s made the news. I’ve just gone on a multi-tweet rant about how men need to call each other out and how we need to teach our young men about consent. (Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that the phrase ‘multi-tweet rant’ is ridiculous and trivialises everything it touches. That’s what it was though.) My rant is getting positive attention. I’m glad that it’s resonating with people but I feel uneasy. I know that College Me, the 20 year old Arts student who considered himself a feminist, was far from perfect. If you could somehow strip the facts of College Me’s life of identifying information and show them to me I’d say very mean things. I’d call him a toxic idiot. I’d say he was lying to himself. Why then do I think I have a right to comment on any man’s behaviour when I know how stupid and uninformed I was as a young man? I want to delete the tweets and say, ’Sorry, I’m a terrible hypocrite. Never listen to anything I say, I have no moral authority’.
Here are the facts of College Me which are making me feel this way.
In 2005, I’m in my final semester of an English and Philosophy degree. The only novels by female authors that I’ve read in the three years of this course are Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, and Sula. I’ve never voluntarily read a novel written by a woman. I don’t have an explicit prejudice against women authors, it just literally never occurs to me to read fiction written by women. This goes unnoticed for at least another seven years. In my defence, I do voluntarily take a module about pre-20th Century Woman Philosophers because I realised no women had appeared in any of the other philosophy modules I’d done. So don’t hate me completely, the seeds of redemption were there.
However, part of the reason I hadn’t encountered any women philosophers was because I’d summarily dismissed the Gender Studies module as not for me. I’d also done this any time a lecturer had suggested engaging with a text from a feminist perspective in the English course. Resume your hate with renewed vigour.
The centrepiece of my 2005 sitting room, which I share with two other men, is five large posters of semi-naked women from FHM. We see no problem with this. We ask women who come to our house if this bothers them. We silently judge women who are bothered by it as not being ‘Cool Girls’. Cool Girls, our thinking goes, would be fine with five 4ft posters of semi-naked women staring down at them when they’re trying to watch TV.
That year FHM released a Girl A Day calendar. One of the three of us, I genuinely can’t remember which one, has the bright idea of sticking up each day from the calendar on the opposite wall. We make it as far as April before our commitment and Blu-Tac runs out. So that’s the two opposing walls of my house covered in images of semi-naked women. Do you hate me yet? I hate me.
The worst thing about 2005 Me though is that I always laughed along when a male friend told a story about a woman that was, in retrospect, shitty. I can’t tell any of those stories, they’re not mine to tell, but it’s the women from those stories whose names I never knew who rise up and remind me that I haven’t always been the good ally I like to think I am.
I try to distance myself from that twenty-year old idiot because I am deeply ashamed of him, his naiveté, his certainty that he was one of the good ones. I tell myself that I had a girlfriend the whole way through college who is now my wife so I never personally acted harmfully towards a woman. I’m not The Guy in any of the stories that women tell each other in solidarity; I’ve never been the one-night stand gone wrong, or that pest in your DMs, or the crazy ex.
I try to convince myself that I was a product of my times, that, if I’d had Twitter back then to show me the way, I’d have been fine. The posters would have been burned, I’d have sat attentively in gender studies class while respectfully not dominating conversations, that I’d have called out my friends. This is a fantasy.
When I talk about feminism now, on Twitter mostly (opportunities to talk about rape culture and toxic masculinity happen rarely when you work in an office job), it’s a form of therapy. The primary motivation of course is to speak up, to be a male voice speaking to other men and saying “this isn’t ok” but the secondary audience of every tweet is the absolute fucking dope that was 20-year old me. He thought he was so smart but he wasn’t. Also, his breakfast every morning was a bottle of Lucozade and a Nutri-Grain bar. Every tweet brings me closer to cleansing myself of his mistakes. That’s my intention anyway. I know that that little scrote will always be in there waiting to take over again. I think about all the amazing women I’m lucky enough to call my friends now and how they’d have taken one look at my 2005 sitting room and backed the fuck out of there. And they’d have been right. And I think about my wife, and how lucky I am that she sat in that room and hated it and decided to stay with me anyway.
I wonder how far away I need to get from my former self before I can talk about these things without feeling like a fraud. I wonder if it’s right to want to cut that part of my history away or if it’s necessary, a reminder that people can change and that it’s always worth speaking up because there’s always a receptive twenty-year old who hasn’t realised he’s not finished maturing yet.
Mostly though, I just think “SORRY” over and over to any woman who felt oppressed or belittled by any choices I made no matter how passive a player I was in their story. A blinking red light in the back of my psyche, informing everything I do.