‘Women,’ my friend said one evening in the pub. ‘I swear to God, if they didn’t have cunts we’d shoot the fucking lot of them.’
I smiled and let out a nervous laugh. ‘That’s a bit harsh,’ I said, but he just shrugged and the conversation moved on to something else. His comment stuck with me though because in our Creative Writing MA classes he was always very cordial towards the women in the group, always the first to make sure they could be heard.
Sam Mills’ Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo is part memoir, part essay. Its basic premise is essentially that the #MeToo movement has been co-opted by abusers who use their public support for feminism as a veneer under which to perpetuate the very abuse they claim to abhor. It’s a long essay but a short book, easily read in an extended afternoon, and it touches on everything from rape and murder to a much more basic lack of respect towards what some still see as ‘the fairer sex’.
The memoir part is easy. Mills sleeps with R, who mistreats her. She’s keen to point out that R isn’t his real initial and we’re given little identifying information about him. He is a British academic at an American university, or so we’re told – one wouldn’t be surprised if he is an American academic at a British university given Mills’ concern for not ‘outing’ him. Throughout the book, one can’t help but feel that Mills is just a little too concerned with giving abusers the benefit of the doubt, of allowing them to avoid the worst consequences of their actions.
Mills meets him at a party in Manchester, one thing leads to another and they sleep together. So far, so ordinary. What follows is a story familiar to many women and even some men. He tells her he doesn’t want their relationship to be exclusive. He sleeps with other women but gets annoyed if he feels Mills is trying to seduce other men. He blows hot and cold. Through it all, Mills tries to be empathetic and understanding – perhaps to a fault. She finds out he’s slept with her friend, tries not to let it bother her. She notices a pattern of abuse, carried out against her and other women. His behaviour becomes aggressive and unpredictable and Mills starts to worry he could undermine her career – indeed, at one point we’re led to believe that R might have sabotaged having one of her novels adapted for the stage. In public, R is an avowed feminist but in private he treats the women in his life like shit. In an age of Twitter and #MeToo, Mills is well aware that R’s career could suffer if she was to ‘out’ him.
There’s a certain frustration about parts of her story – his behaviour should really demand the end of their friendship but she continues engaging in email conversation with him. It’s frustrating but not surprising – women are used to giving men multiple chances and this story is no different. In the end she hopes he’s changed: one can’t help but feel he’s probably just switched tactics. Mills says that at a party later in their friendship he seems to be making sure the women attending aren’t being harassed by other men – one wonders if that’s really the case, or if he’s just ‘marking’ his territory, presenting himself as an ally when in fact he’s not changed at all. Or maybe he’s just got a modern slant on cock-blocking.
Much of Mills’ essay is a treatise on the #MeToo movement. Harvey Weinstein, Aziz Ansari and Brock Turner are just a small selection of the abusers listed but Mills pays as much attention – as she should – to the women they’ve wronged. Her arguments are logical, coherent and well-structured and she reserves her greatest admonishment for those she feels are least repentant – there’s a forgiveness of sorts for Ansari, who seems to genuinely regret his actions.
Mills quotes Ansari at one point when he says, ‘We’re all shitty people, we’re all on a journey. In fifty years we’re going to look back and consider ourselves complete arseholes.’ It’s true, she says – we’ve all had times where we’ve let ourselves down or not acted as we should. But there’s a difference between being an arsehole and being an abuser: we’re all the former on occasion but it’s the latter we really need to watch out for. Especially when they look to cloak themselves with the aura of being an ally to women’s rights.
There are other good points well made. Abuse is enabled by the disparity in power between the parties. Social norms can see-saw back and forth, action and reaction. Men are taught to be ‘manly’ from an early age when what really needs teaching is a new definition of what it means to be a good man.
All of this brings us back to my original story at the start of this review, the writing of which in itself illustrates the problem Mills has identified with chauvo-feminists. ‘Women. If they didn’t have cunts we’d shoot the fucking lot of them.’ You, the reader, don’t know me. The story may be true, or it may not. It may even have been me who made the comment about shooting women. Indeed, this entire piece may simply be yet another attempt by a man to portray himself as an ally of women while secretly abusing those he gets close to.
And those, Mills rightly says, are the ones we need to watch out for.